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Hands on: Oculus Touch

Oculus Touch is the next best thing to digital hands

Oculus Touch finally brings motion control to the Rift.

The demand in our office to play with the Rift hasn’t been nearly as high as people’s’ desire to play with the Vive. It makes sense, as the idea of sitting in a chair and using a controller to play Eve: Valkyrie or Lucky’s Tale seems a little lacking when faced with a full room-scale VR experience. There have been a few noteworthy Rift titles, but even simple tech demos are more impressive when you can wander about.

Oculus has a response, and it’s the Touch controllers. With a slew of touch-sensitive buttons, a comfortable design, and the freedom to move, the Touch controllers have a chance to reinvigorate the Rift community.

But they’re facing an uphill battle for adoption. At $200, they aren’t cheap, and they bring the price for a headset and controllers up to the same $800 price as the HTC Vive bundle. Are the Touch controllers about to launch the Rift back into the fight, or is it too little, too late?

Your new digital hands

The buttons are easily the Touch controller’s coolest feature. Each button and trigger is fitted with a capacitive touch sensor, so there are actually three levels of pressing – activated, unactivated, and untouched — as opposed to the simple on/off of a normal button.

Related: Oculus Rift review

And there’s no shortage of buttons on the Oculus Touch controllers. There are two triggers, one on the front and one on the side, on both controllers. Each controller also hosts a joystick and two circular buttons on top, where your thumbs naturally fall. There are two more flat buttons, one on each side, that jump to the Oculus Home menu.

The benefit of adding touch sensors to the buttons is profound. Remove your index finger from the front trigger, and you’ll point. Remove your thumb from the buttons, and you’ll give a thumbs up. You can clench your fist or leave your hands in a natural position.

The HTC Vive controllers, on the other hand, lack that sort of functionality. There’s a circular touchpad on each controller, but most of the games we’ve played don’t actually use it. Underneath there’s a trigger that functions either as a grab function or activation, depending on the game, and a pair of grip buttons on each side that most users have trouble finding and using once the headset is on.

Game developers have already worked out a few unofficial conventions for mapping the controller, even before the Touch’s official launch. Most games use the lower trigger, under the middle and ring finger, as a “grab” action, while the index finger trigger tends to “activate” that object, whether that’s firing a gun, flicking a lighter, or popping the top on a bottle.

Wave goodbye to gamepads

Aside from the touch-sensitive buttons, the predominant difference between the Xbox One controller packaged with the Rift, and these Touch controllers, is that the latter tracks individual hand motion and rotation.

The result of adding touch sensors to the buttons is profound.

It solves one of the bigger issues we’ve had using the Rift to introduce non-gamers to virtual reality. If you aren’t familiar with a gamepad, the buttons and layout are a mystery once the headset is on. The Touch controllers are more complicated, but you can actually see them in-game (much like the Vive), so it’s easier to understand what you’re doing.

There is an issue with the controllers that will annoy you. Because the default setup has two constellation sensors in front of you that visually track motion, the controllers won’t work if you block their view with your body or any object. If you turn too far to one side, you’ll watch your virtual hands fly off in random directions, or disappear altogether.

Related: HTC Vive review

The flying problem can be solved in software, but without extra cameras, you’ll still lose track of which way is forward and eventually try to grab something behind you. Thankfully, Oculus has a solution.

Don’t stand, don’t stand so close to me

Another new feature Oculus announced at Connect was 360-degree, full room-scale support for the Touch controllers and the Rift headset. To do either requires a third sensor ($80 more). In the setup Oculus presented, two sensors sit at the outside edge of a desk in front, pointed in, while a third sensor sits directly behind the user.

Unfortunately, the only way to connect a constellation sensor is over a wired USB connection. Between the Rift and three sensors, you’re looking at four USB 3.0 ports and an HDMI coming out of your GPU. That’s going to test the connectivity of a lot of home-built machines, and will likely rule out a number of otherwise VR-ready laptops.

Related: What’s VR useful for? More than you can possibly imagine

There’s another issue, too. In our brief testing period with a preliminary version of the 360-degree Touch and Rift use, we found that even with three cameras, it wasn’t an entirely smooth operation. There were still periods, particularly when faced between a front camera and the rear camera, where gestures and tracking cut out. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it was disorienting, and we had to turn one way or the other solved the issue.

Game on

At Oculus Connect 3 in 2016, we had the chance to try out a number of games designed for use with the new Touch controllers. One thing that stood out were the vast number of orientations and uses developers managed to find for them.

In Star Trek: Bridge Crew, you turn your hands palm-down, allowing you to use the front trigger to “tap” on a virtual touchscreen panel. The scratching motion feels intuitive and natural, and slight bumps of vibration replicate a hard surface where there isn’t one.

In Lone Echo, your hands become your primary method of navigating the game world. In the space station’s zero gravity environment, you reach out and grab ledges, walls, and railings, pulling yourself along with slow pull-ups, or launching out into the spacious environments at breakneck speed.

Rift owners have had to wait patiently for motion controllers, but they’ll be glad they did.

There are more expected uses for the Touch controllers as well, like guns. Dead and Buried pits small teams of Western-themed characters against each other in a cover-based shooting gallery. It utilizes the controllers not just for aiming, but also for other actions, requiring you to twist or flip them different directions to reload, or light a stick of dynamite before throwing it.

Similarly, Robo-Recall pits you in the fight to recall hundreds of malfunctioning androids. You spend most of the time firing your weapons, but often stop to grab two pieces of a robot so you can tear it apart. It’s an immensely satisfying experience, accompanied by humorous responses from the robots.

Another common use was the disc-throwing action. Lone Echo’s multiplayer mode played out like a combination of the training exercises from Ender’s Game and Ultimate. Ripcoil was more like Pong, but with a blazing fast disc you could wing across the stadium past your opponent.

Should you pre-order?

When the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launched, we felt like the former was missing something that the latter provided. It didn’t take us long to realize it was motion control. The Vive’s remotes allowed us to walk around and pick up objects, but they never felt analogous to our hands. There was always a layer of abstraction there.

Rift owners have had to wait patiently for hand tracking, but they’ll be glad they did. Where the Vive controllers struggled with complexity and an unfamiliar shape, the Touch controllers are intuitive, comfortable, and innovative. Room-scale and 360-degree support still isn’t perfect, but there’s plenty of time to work on it before the launch on December 6.

There’s also the issue of available titles. Oculus has been bragging about having at least 35 games for Touch controllers available during the “launch period,” which we’ve heard described as far out as spring of 2017. That’s a decent handful, and brings the grand total of games to around 120, including those in Oculus Home and those that are supported through mods. Compare that to the 600 currently available on the Steam marketplace, and it seems a little meager.

Whether the Touch controllers on their own are enough to convince people to buy a Rift remains to be seen. The Vive is still a tough competitor to beat and its motion control is more fluid for room scale control. One thing is for sure: if you already own a Rift, the Touch controllers are a must-have.

Highs

  • Intuitive design
  • All buttons touch sensitive
  • Impressively immersive

Lows

  • 360-degree still lacking
  • Limited game library