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Oculus Touch Review: Two Thumbs Up

I first tried out the Oculus Touch controller prototypes at E3 2015 at a behind closed door meeting with a few Oculus executives. Shacknews has covered Oculus since the Development Kit 1 was on Kickstarter and a constant question that I have asked over that time is, “What is the Oculus vision for human interface devices for VR?” It was clear even back in 2013 that the future of VR was not going to be a seated experience with an Xbox 360 controller as your primary means of input. Oculus Touch is the company's great first attempt at merging hand presence in virtual reality with the ease of use and feel of a traditional video game controller.

Design

Oculus acquired Carbon Design, the Seattle-based design firm behind the Xbox 360 controller and the original Kinect, in the Summer of 2014. It was clear that they had ambitions for creating a new human interface device for VR. The Oculus Touch controllers are a near perfect balance of form, function, attention to detail, and simplicity. The controllers are clearly an input solution for VR that was built by Oculus from scratch.

Touch controllers feature gyroscope and accelerometer sensors as well as Oculus Rift Outside-In Tracking. Each controller uses a single AA battery and feature 1 index finger trigger, 1 grip trigger, 2 action buttons, 1 home/menu button, and 1 clickable thumbstick. A single Oculus Touch controller measures in at 110mm wide, 100mm tall, and 98mm long. It also weighs 136 grams without a battery.

The controllers are perfectly symmetrical with the only difference being the names of the buttons, with the left hand Touch controller sporting the X, Y and Menu buttons while the right hand Touch controller home to the A, B, and Oculus buttons. The Oculus button functions much like the Xbox Home button while the Menu button resembles the start or pause button on many video game controllers.

At the front of each controller is a Sensor Ring that communicates with the Oculus Sensors. It looks slightly odd at first, but the decision to surround the front of the controller allows for solid tracking without getting in the way. It has also protected my hands. I was trying to catch a tipped pass during a VR Sports Challenge football demo at E3 2016 and the Sensor Ring prevented my hands from smashing into the ceiling. It is that kind of design mindset that truly make the Oculus Touch controllers a delightful marriage of form and function.

Hand Presence

Oculus Touch controllers are a well thought out solution for hand presence in virtual reality. The controllers are able to detect when the user is resting their finger on top of the analog joysticks, allowing for another means of input outside of clicking in the button and moving the joystick. This creates a whole world of finger based gestures for developers to explore. Touch lets you make social gestures like pointing, waving, or giving a thumbs-up in VR. This shines in multiplayer experiences as it allows for new forms of social communication in VR. Something as minimal as being able to accurately point wuth your index finger truly increases the sense of presence and immersion in virtual reality.

One of the best examples of finger presence that I have experienced was during a demo of Wilson's Heart, an upcoming Oculus Touch title by Twisted Pixel, at E3 2016. Turning the pages of a book with your index finger was a minimal detail in the demo, but the sense of presence created by the one to one nature of how your hand is oriented in the real and virtual worlds is exactly what most players are looking for when they step into the Rift. 

The triggers are intuitively placed on the Oculus Touch controllers allowing for a great feeling of immersion. The middle finger trigger is used to grab onto things, while the index finger trigger is used for actions like pulling a trigger or throwing something. Oculus really did a great job of creating a one to one feel of grabbing or throwing an object. A game that is a great example of this highly detailed hand presence is Lone Echo by Ready at Dawn Studios in which players navigate through a space station by grasping and pulling themselves around using the environment of the level. 

The most important feature of the Oculus Touch controllers is that they are visible in VR. This creates continuity between VR and the real world once more as the controllers appear in VR when needed and transform into whatever object the developer desires at the drop of a hat. Being able to see the controllers also makes tutorials way easier to develop and lowers the barrier to entry for newcomers to the platform.

Ergonomics

The Oculus Touch controllers are incredibly refined from an ergonomic standpoint. They feel absolutely amazing in your hands and they are light enough that you forget they are there at times. They sit naturally in the hand and provide 6 buttons that can be easily pressed. The refinement of the Xbox 360 design definitely inspired these controllers. The handles sit perfectly in the hand and the spacing of the face buttons is extremely comfortable. As I mentioned above, the Sensor Ring provides a shield of sorts that can protect overly excited players from smashing their hands into dangerous objects. The magic of the Oculus Touch controllers is how they are able to transform into whatever a developer desires while being able to instantly disappear into an understated minimal role. Oculus has created a truly diverse controller that doesn't distract the player, but instead enhances the feeling of immersion with its subdued appreciation of the balance of form and function.

Gameplay

The most comfortabe controller in the world is worthless to a gamer if they can't have fun. Luckily, Oculus Touch is a blast to use. Check out this gameplay footage of The Unspoken by Insomniac Games.

A standout demo from Oculus Connect 3 was Robo Recall by Epic Games. Check out this fast-paced shooter that takes the Unreal Engine to VR like never before.

Oculus Medium shows just how versatile the Oculus Touch platform can be with its in depth menu systems and intuitive sculpting tools. Please take a look.

Performance and Battery Life

Besides occlusion brought on by Oculus' sensor limitations, the performance of Oculus Touch is outstanding. The battery life is over 8 hours per battery as I didn't have to change the batteries once during the multiple weeks in which I reviewed the controllers. It is nice that the Oculus Touch controllers are powered by AA batteries because you can always swap them out and keep playing as opposed to some competitors who require USB charging.

Sensors

The weakest part of the Oculus Touch user experience is undoubtedly Oculus' sensor technology. My review was done with two sensors configured in front of me. Sadly, this opens the door of occlusion when a player is facing away from the camera sensors with their body blocking line of sight to the controllers. This will cause the controllers to jump around or float in VR and breaks immersion almost instantaneously. Much of this problem can be alleviated by purchasing yet another sensor for $79. Oculus Sensors require USB 3.0 and setting up 3 sensors may be a challenge for some users. Many games are mindful of occlusion and take steps to prevent bad user experiences, but it is bound to happen when a player spins around in a shooter or is looking behind themselves in an advernture game. 

Conclusion

Oculus Touch is a must buy for anyone who owns an Oculus Rift. I have stated before that I believe tethered VR head mounted displays are going to remain a niche market for enthusiasts for some time. As novel and intuitive as the Oculus Touch controllers are, I don't think that they alone will be a demand driver for Oculus Rift. Software needs to continue to be developed that knocks players socks off and the price of the devices will have to come down over time. That being said, Oculus Touch is a must-own if you already own an Oculus Rift and a PC that is VR ready.

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