Oculus Execs Believe Controllers Are The Missing Link In Virtual Reality

When you put a child in virtual reality, they instinctively raise their hands hoping to see them, says Oculus CTO John Carmack. Yet Oculus doesn’t have its own gloves or handheld controllers, despite rumors amongst the VR community that Oculus would reveal a controller today at its Oculus Connect conference. Carmack concluded “The missing link in VR is controllers”.

But considering ‘The Future Of VR’ panel with the Oculus execs started with the question of “where is the VR controller?”, it seems clear the company will move to build or support handheld input devices.

In fact, early today during their demo of the new Oculus Crescent Bay headset prototype as source told an Oculus employee they wished there was a controller, and the employee responded “it’s coming.” Yet currently, Carmack says that people want to see their hands in virtual reality, “and we’ve got nothing there right now”.

What that will look like is still coming together, though. Carmack, the famed technologist from Quake-marker id Software, said that “Controllers is such a factious and contentious issue that it’s not going to be clear when someone wins.” Oculus’ 22-year old founder Palmer Luckey said that “There’s no clear path towards what is best [for controllers]. People haven’t identified the problems.”

Oculus Controller Panel

Eye tracking was another form of input the Oculus big wigs discussed as part of the future of VR. The idea is that rather than turning your head to move your vision, you could one day just glance around. Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash discussed that VR headsets would probably have to support “foveated rendering“. This means that the resolution of an image fluctuates so the most important parts are higher-res. What’s important can be determined through eye tracking. However, Abrash said foveated rendering is probably still too computationally intense for current VR rigs to handle. In the end, though, the top priority is to not make people sick.

As for where Oculus goes with input devices, Luckey did confirm that it has been doing testing in the handheld input space, but it’s been a challenge. “It’s surprising how accurate you have to be [with detecting head movements as a controller] to make it good, and you have to do the same with your hands. Having any latency makes you feel like your hand is dead.”

Today’s Oculus Crescent Bay announcement was all about creating a headset which offers true “Presence”, where you feel like you’re actually transported into the virtual world. With a motion tracking headset where you can tilt, lean, duck, and even walk around a little, it’s coming close to accomplishing the first stage Presence, where it’s immersive as long as you don’t try to run around or lift your arms. But as Oculus Chief Architect Atman Binstock said, the next frontier is “Hand Presence”.

During the Q&A I asked what the execs thought were the advantages and disadvantages of different input devices like dual-wielding nunchuks, motion tracking, and gloves, and which is each of their favorites. Luckey responded that a great device for guns is not the same as a great device for swords is not a great device for productivity apps. He said there will need to be a device that’s good for generally interacting with virtual worlds, though. With so many different use cases for VR and different corresponding input devices, it leads me to believe that Oculus will build a platform for connecting third-party input devices to its headsets. This would leave controller fragmentation to the developer community so Oculus can focus on generalizable problems and opportunities that exist across VR apps.