Oculus’ Rift was supposed to lead the virtual reality revolution. The company, founded through a Kickstarter campaign, seemed incapable of doing wrong in its early years, and had no legitimate competition.
Then the HTC Vive appeared. Supported by much-loved Valve, and possessing handheld controllers usable in a space of up to 15 by 15 feet, it presented a bolder, uncompromising take on virtual reality. Why sit down, when you could get up and move? Why use a gamepad, when you could reach out and touch VR? It was a compelling argument, and elevated the Vive to our VR headset of choice.
Now, Oculus has struck back. Its Touch controllers promise a seamless experience, mostly as capable as the Vive, which hooks into the Oculus’ refined ecosystem and library. But Touch has something to prove. It’s second to market by over half a year, and at $200 for Touch in addition to the $600 Rift headset, Oculus isn’t pricing itself below the Vive, which is $800. In fact, Oculus recommends large room-scale setups use a third sensor, which is another $80.
Does Touch let Rift take the throne it once seemed destined for?
Struggling to start
Oculus has always paid great attention to the fit-and-finish of its hardware and software experience. It’s a core part of the brand’s DNA, and it’s easy to draw comparisons between it and technology giants like Apple, or Microsoft. Everything about the experience of owning a Rift feels intentional. That remains true for Touch.
Setting up Touch is accomplished through the same, slick interface that is used to set up the Rift. The wizard uses both text and images to shepherd users through the process, and the software smartly confirms connections bit-by-bit.
The wizard doesn’t just setup the sensors. It also tells you if you forgot to plug one in. That may seem a trivial feature, but it eliminates one extra thing that must be checked if something goes awry, and provides a sense of confidence to the proceedings.
So far, so good. But soon the sensor setup screen appears, and the problems begin.
Please adjust your sensor
The Oculus’ sensors are, to be blunt, inferior to those in the Vive. Their usable range is shorter, and they demand a USB connection, which limits where they can be placed. Worse, they’re finicky. They’re particular about their angle of adjustment, and they must be between three and six feet apart.
Touch can be a blast.
These limitations proved more troublesome than we’d hoped. We plopped the sensors down in our testing lab, on a desk, with one on each side of a 27-inch monitor. That wasn’t okay, because the sensors were too close (we measured – they were 30 inches apart). We moved a few things, and tried again, but then were told the angle was wrong. So we moved them, and tried again. It finally worked.
Our trials weren’t over. Having passed through Touch setup, we leapt into configuring the ‘Guardian’ system, which shows the boundaries of your play space while you’re immersed in the Rift. We quickly noticed problems. Unlike the Vive, which rarely has trouble tracking, Oculus’ setup lost tracking as soon as the controller disappeared behind the user’s body. We also discovered a desktop on our test bench clipped the view of one sensor, making tracking impossible there.
And sensors aren’t the only problem. Rift came out well before Touch, so Oculus didn’t see reason to give the headset a long HDMI cable. HDMI and USB extension cables are needed to prevent cable tangle, but they’re not included. It’s an easy problem to solve, but annoying to experience after dropping $800 on a Rift with Touch controllers.
Because we lacked a third sensor, we didn’t try large room-scale setups, sticking to the “moderate” play space – five feet by seven feet, at most. The games we played didn’t make full use of even that, yet sensor problems remained. We think the third sensor will prove mandatory for large room-scale setups, but it’s hard to say, as Oculus lists three-sensor setups as “experimental.”
The Vive’s setup wizard does not look as slick as Oculus’, but its sensors require less trial and error. They don’t mind being at a weird angle, and nearby objects rarely become an issue. Players with a tight space, or strangely shaped room, should beware. Setting up Touch will prove difficult.
It knows what your hands are doing
Oculus’ Touch controllers perform the same job as the Vive’s, letting players interact directly with VR environments. The knee-jerk reaction might be to call Oculus a copy-cat. But though its controllers seek the same goal, its design couldn’t be more different.
Each Touch controller is shaped like the grip of a pistol, complete with trigger. A loop rounds out from the side of the grip, leading the user’s hand around the grip itself. The top, meanwhile, flattens into a conventional controller interface, complete with two face buttons, a thumbstick, and Oculus-specific home buttons. Together, the pair of Touch controllers emulate the layout of the Xbox gamepad that comes with every Rift. They even feel similar, encouraging your hands into a trigger-like grip.
The magic is in the buttons. Though they look simple enough, they’re capacitive — like a touchscreen. That gives Touch its defining characteristic. Unlike Vive, a Rift with Touch can sense your hand position. Point, and your virtual hand points. Grip, and it grips. Leave your hand slack, and the same happens in VR. A clever tutorial involving a retro toy robot gives you the basics, and then you’re off.
In theory, this gives Touch a clear edge. And it does work as advertised, with little need to think about it. Its seamlessness undersells the feature. If you aren’t familiar with the Vive, you’ll probably never stop to think a VR controller would be different. Those with experience, though, will fall in love with how simple interaction can be with this interface. It’s arguably most noticeable in the Rift’s menus, where pointing towards menus feels as natural as if you were standing in a fast-food line, pointing at a double cheeseburger.
The reality of Touch is less inspiring. We had a hard time finding games that take advantage of it. In fact, the titles we spent most our time playing (Rescuties, SUPERHOT VR, The Climb) didn’t seem to benefit from it at all. And while understanding hand gestures is useful, Touch’s vocabulary remains limited. You can point, but Touch won’t help you remove a virtual splinter from a virtual elephant’s foot. Fine-grain control remains impossible.
Yes, there’s games to play
As mentioned, we spent most of our time in a trio that included Rescuties, SUPERHOT VR, and The Climb. These three became our favorites for a very important reason – they’re real, full games. They offer hours of content, and evolve cleverly from simple beginnings into complex, challenging experiences.
For us, The Climb is the best example of VR’s potential. A game about climbing wouldn’t be much fun with a gamepad, which is why most games automate parkour with flashy animations – just press A, and run at the wall. With Touch, though, the elements come together. Reaching for a new grip is a test of both physical reach and mental attention, and while the game’s first levels are easy, they ramp up into an experience that’ll put your sweat on your brow.
These favorites are far from the only games worth playing. Fantastic Contraption, our Vive launch game of choice, is now available to play with Touch. There’s also the silly, snap-shot fun of Fruit Ninja VR, and the amusing spy-themed puzzles of I Expect You To Die, among others. Those who enjoy a relaxing, creative experience can check out Oculus’ sculpting program, Medium, or become a street artist in Kingspray.
Of course, there’s also a lot of shovel-ware. Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope, a drab shooting gallery, stood out as one of the least creative titles – which makes its $40 price tag difficult to understand. But it worked, at least. Other titles, like Carnival Games VR and Mervils: A VR Adventure, are aggressively bad, with poor control schemes, awful graphics, or frequent clipping issues.
But bad games can be found wherever games are sold, so a few duds are excusable. The catalog of titles available for Touch, though limited, is impressive. The Climb isn’t a game you’ll play for hours at a stretch, but it is a game that’ll keep you coming back for more over, and over, and over again. The same can be said for Fantastic Contraption, Rescuties, SUPERHOT VR, and so on.
The Vive remains superior
Touch can be a blast. Standing and room-scale VR isn’t always superior to sitting, but it solves the nausea issues that forced us to mark down the Rift in our review. Even people sensitive enough to become motion sick from games on a television usually have no issue with room-scale VR.
That makes Touch a must-have for Rift owners. For those who don’t own a Rift, it’s less impressive. Though enjoyable, the technical capability of Touch remains inferior to Vive, and it shows. The Oculus sensors feel forced to do a job they were never designed to do.
The sensor’s limitations proved more troublesome than we’d hoped.
Mostly, they work, but they’re too finicky to setup, too easy to fool. Simply turning around is enough to break tracking. Tracking also goes wrong if anyone in front of the sensors. And in most cases, tracking is lost if a controller is held too high, or too low. This isn’t normally a problem, but when a gun drops to the floor in SUPERHOT VR, you may have trouble picking it up.
Vive has these issues conquered. While its Lighthouse sensors need a clear line-of-sight, they’re wireless, so it’s much easier to mount them where obstructions aren’t an issue. Temporary obstacles are not a problem, as even packing several onlookers into the play space rarely fools the Vive. And tracking works from floor to ceiling unless you play in a cathedral.
The Touch controllers are better than the Vive’s wands. They’re a bit more comfortable, and the button layout is better. But we prefer superior tracking to Touch’s better layout.
Touch comes with a typical, one-year warranty. It’s the minimum required, and what you’d expect from cutting-edge consumer electronics.Our Take
Finally, room-scale VR has come to the Rift. At $200, it’s a must-have for the headset’s owners, even if sensor issues too frequently interrupt the fun.
Is there a better alternative?
The DT Accessory Pack
Yes; the Vive. HTC’s headset is not as elegant, but has access to a similar selection of games, and enjoys better motion control tracking. Oculus isn’t going to outperform the Vive until it replaces its existing sensors with more capable hardware.
How long will it last?
The lifespan of Touch is impossible to guess. It could theoretically be made to work with many generations of Rift hardware. It’s also possible that Oculus will redesign it in a way that makes older versions incompatible. First-generation hardware is always a gamble.
Should you buy it?
Yes, if you have a Rift. If not, you’re better off with HTC’s Vive. Touch patches the Rift’s most obvious hole — but it’s just a patch.