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The Sixense STEM Brings Your Hands And Feet Into Virtual Reality

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Oh, you thought virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift were already cool? The folks at Sixense are trying to take it to a whole new level, with a set of motion tracking controllers that bring your hands and feet into the game (and improves the Rift itself, while it’s at it.)

Called the STEM, the system’s basestation emits a 16-foot electromagnetic field that can sense the position and orientation of up to five swappable sensors — enough to track both hands, both feet, and your head all at the same time.

The STEM is a modular system, allowing you to use each of the 5 sensors as you see fit. Want a controller in each hand? Drop a couple sensors into the included controller shells. Squeeze a trigger on the controllers, and your on-screen hands close (allowing you to pick up and throw objects). Want to just track your arms, no controller necessary? Take the sensors out of the controller, drop them into one of the included clip-on adapters, and strap’em to your arms.

Now, you don’t need something like the Oculus Rift to use STEM; as shown a few minutes into the video above, it works just fine on games running on any standard monitor. The Rift is just an obvious (and rather awesome) compliment. In fact, the STEM actually makes the Rift itself better.

You see, as cool as the Rift is, it has one particularly sticky flaw (at least, in its current, developer-focused form) that you’d only really notice once you’ve used it: it can’t do positional tracking. Once you’ve got the Rift on and you’re in a game, you can use it to look up, or down, or left, or right, but move your head forward or back, and… nothing happens. If you’re standing at a balcony, for example, you could only look down at the railing — you can’t stick your head out over the edge, peering down at whatever baddies may be lurking down below. When you’ve found yourself staring directly into a virtual world and every nod and turn of your real-world head is tied to your head in-game, it’s the little things like that that can instantly shatter any sense of immersion.

STEM

Strap a STEM sensor onto the Rift, though, and you’ve got your positional tracking. Stick your neck out, and your in-game head moves accordingly. It takes my one disappointment with the otherwise awesome Rift and tosses it out the window. (In the video above, the “sensor” comes in the form of one of Sixense’s older prototype controllers more or less duct-taped to my head. In its final form, the company tells me it’ll be a whole lot less goofy).

To be honest, the positional head tracking with the Rift is the main thing I’m excited about here. Despite a generation of things like the Kinect and the PS Move, I’m as of yet unconvinced that waving my hands about to play a game is fun after a few minutes. While quite the mind-blowing experience, climbing that virtual ladder in the video above felt more frustrating than fun. I am convinced that positional tracking is something the Rift needs, though — and after using the Rift/STEM combo for a few minutes, I’m absolutely certain.

Positional tracking is something that Oculus has previously said they’re working on building into the eventual consumer release of the Rift, though they’ve yet to explain how they’ll get it done. Sixense declined to comment whether or not they were working with Oculus on any future products, but did say that they were sure their efforts wouldn’t conflict with each other.

Their biggest challenge, of course, will be getting enough developer support to make the STEM a worthwhile purchase. They’ve made it as easy as possible here, with support for the Source engine and the Unity engine ready to go. But there’s more to pulling this off than just tacking support into existing games; you’d really need to design the game with such things in mind for it to feel like anything more than a fancy hack.

Sixense launched a Kickstarter for the STEM this morning, aiming to raise at least $250k. They broke through that goal within 5 hours.