It strikes me as very silly that anyone is trying to declare VR a failure or a success, given that we’re still working out the most basic of control systems for it. Valve’s latest VR project is a new alternate controller for the HTC Vive called Knuckles, and by all accounts it’s a big step in the right direction, allowing complex finger motions to be tracked, on top of offering analogue sticks and buttons. To demo the new hardware, Valve put together Moondust, a Portal-themed minigame collection designed to put the new hardware through its paces.
While you’ll of course need the absurdly rare Knuckles EV2 prototype to play Moondust, you can at least read in detail about how the various simulations work within the collection of mini-games here. The four games are Rock Crushing (be a giant robot, smash rocks), BuggyBuddy (drive a remote control car), Space Station Construction (it does what it says on the tin) and the Throwing Range, letting you practice the opposite of picking things up in a virtual space.
Probably the most immediately interesting of the demos is Rock Crushing, because it hinges on individual finger motions and pressure sensitivity. The development blog post goes into detail about how it was a challenge finding the most ‘right’ feeling pressure which will crush the rocks, and making sure that people don’t accidentally smash the items they’re trying to pick up. Haptic feedback is essential to the experience, as you need the player to be able to really see and ‘feel’ how their hands are affecting the virtual world without any real physical resistance.
That’s not to say that the other demos were easy to make. The development blog goes into detail as to how every single tester had their own ideas on how the remote control buggy demo was best controlled. In the end they settled on something pretty close to modern-day RC car controls, which makes sense. It doesn’t sound like Valve learnt much from producing the Space Station Assembly part, but it apparently feels very smooth and satisfying in action now.
The last part of Moondust, throwing, was apparently almost as big a challenge as figuring out how to convincingly let players crush things. Throwing in VR is hard. If you’ve never tried it before, imagine all the things that can go wrong with throwing a ball in real life, plus latency, potential mis-reads on the controller, buttons being a poor substitute for fingers and more. The Knuckles controller adds even more variables to the mix, but they reckon that they’ve figured out a satisfying standard configuration.
I find this whole process fascinating to watch, and I’m strongly tempted to hold off on picking up a VR headset until the Knuckles controllers are finalised and on the market. It took developers years to figure out that a mouse could be used to control first-person games, and when you’re working with entirely new controller concepts, it’s going to take time, effort and failures in order to find something that works right. Still, this does seem to be a move in the right direction, and I can’t wait to try it out for myself whenever the hardware is released.
Moondust requires the Knuckles EV2 prototype to play, but you can download it for yourself via a link in the developer blog post here.