On Monday, I stood in line among the many backpacked attendees of Facebook's F8 conference in San Francisco to try out the new Oculus Touch handset. During their keynote the next day, Carnegie Mellon assistant professor and Oculus Rift researcher Yaser Sheikh and Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer would talk about how the key to making  virtual reality feel real was something called "social presence," suggesting that innovations like the Touch would help turn VR into a "visceral experience," not just a visual mind trip. 

 There were actually three lines: one for Gear VR, one for Oculus Rift with a regular gaming handset, and one for Oculus Rift with the Oculus Touch pair of controllers. Touch was the longest line. An attendant of the line told me to expect an hour-long wait, but I made it to the front in a half hour or so. 

Upon reaching the demonstration area, a woman in a blue Oculus t-shirt asked me which product I was waiting to demo. "The touch, you're going to be amazed. You're going to be like going home dreaming about it," she said. My take as a virtual reality noob after making it through the demo: The handset was surprisingly easy to use but it's hard to say to what degree Touch in its current form enhances the VR experience.

Facebook offered two games as part of the demo -- one was a basketball shooting drill, the other a football match. (American football, not soccer.) I started with basketball, which was a wise choice because it was a lot less violent than the football option. They guide slipped the handsets on my hands after fitting me with a headset, which made for a sort of disembodying experience. My eyes were open but I couldn't see what was physically being placed on my hands even if I turned my head toward them. 

The basketball demo was pretty straight forward. Instructions were to look at whatever basketball in the rack you wish to select, ensuring that the white laser dot at the center of you vision fell on the ball. Next reach for the ball, hover your virtual hand over it, and pull the trigger of the handset to grab it. I found that if I moved my finger off the trigger, the ball would immediately fall to the ground and bounce off into oblivion. The idea was to hold on to the ball long enough to aim it and throw it at (and hopefully into) the hoop.

The Touch is sufficiently sensitive to perceive the movements of the user's fingers. I noticed with some surprise when I stretched my arms in front of me that when I moved my own thumb, the thumb of my large-handed avatar moved as well. That was probably the singular most impressive part of the whole Touch demo.

The Touch itself wasn't really the interesting part. As someone who has put on virtual reality headsets maybe twice before trying out Oculus Rift with Touch, I was much more interested in simply existing in a three-dimensional virtual environment. The guy guiding me through the experience had to prod me to keep playing at moments when I clearly just wanted to explore the court.

In the stands, sets of identical avatars stomped, cheered and danced with staggering coordination. The pinstripe polo-clad referee in front of me scowled. I thought he'd stop judging me so harshly once I finally made a shot but no dice. Later, in the football demo, players charged me if I held the ball for too long, their hulking avatars dissipating like steam after completing tackles. Their aggression had me wondering if the game doubled as some sort of statement about concussions in sports. These might be the sorts of details that any gamer would pass over without a second thought, but for someone with minimal sports, gaming or VR experience they stood out.

The Touch controllers made the game easier to navigate than I think a regular controller would have. Touch matched my movements consistently, and was sensitive enough to follow my intentions without being so sensitive as to jolt an object or alter the environment with every slight move. The game as a result was able to reflect whether I was trying to set up a ball for a shot with one hand or with both, for example. It was surprisingly easy to toss basketballs and catch footballs even if making targets was rare. Using the controllers mostly felt natural, though pulling a trigger to grab items felt a little counterintuitive. 

The virtual reality games I played probably weren't the most ideal environments for testing a tool meant to expand a user's capabilities in VR.  The Touch controllers worked as easier-to-use game controllers but didn't make me feel more immersed than I've felt in virtual reality settings where I had no controllers at all. I wasn't able to widely explore or alter the virtual environment, or interact with the other avatars on my own terms. 

Still, I can see how the controllers might have more impact in virtual reality social environments where users interact with other people who are plugged in, or with artificially intelligent avatars. Early reviews of Oculus Rift conclude that virtual reality is still primarily a medium for gaming though some expect a turnover in favor of mainstream adoption soon. But if you can use your hands in a natural-feeling way to create things that you can use in the real world, that's going to make virtual environments start to matter outside the realm of gaming sooner rather than later.

The Touch is not the stuff of dreams, and it doesn't convincingly make you feel like your body is located in the virtual environment--but it's a step in that direction. What it means right now is that taking a selfie in virtual reality as Schroepfer did Tuesday, or working with the avatar of a colleague located thousands of miles away to make slides for a presentation, will be easier. 

Published on: Apr 14, 2016