Valve demo new VR controls with Portal mini-games

Moondust

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.

Moondust

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.

18 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Uh oh, he called John silly.

  2. Sakkura says:

    Not necessarily for the HTC Vive. We may be getting awful close to the next generation of headsets before these controllers launch.

    Great to see the progress being made though, and Valve relying on its past experience as a game developer to guide its hardware R&D.

    • Dave L. says:

      Between this, SteamVR Skeletal Input, and the EV2’s looking very much like production ready controllers that came off an automated assembly line instead of the clearly prototype-y 1.3s, I’d be pretty surprised if they don’t release them before the end of this year.

      The wave of them going out to devs is more about getting more titles that use their features than it is getting another round of dev feedback for a final hardware revision (and a lot of devs have already been doing knuckles integration with the earlier prototypes, so for them it’s just integrating the new api and maybe adjusting some 3D models to account for the new controller shape).

  3. Vandelay says:

    Glad to see that these are still being worked on. Things had been very silent since the first iteration went out to devs, what must have been over a year ago.

    Best part of this video? The confirmation that this version of the Knuckles has a joystick! You can clearly see that the RC is controlled by a joystick rather than a haptic pad. Hope that this remains in the final version, as the use of the haptic pad is probably the biggest issue with the current controller.

    • mitrovarr says:

      Yeah, that useless haptic pad is the #1 thing that put me off VR gaming earlier this year. Was having great fun in Serious Sam until the haptic pads started acting up and movement became inconsistent and janky.

  4. DoomBroom says:

    They look very similar to the Oculus Touch controllers, and that is good! The sticks has been a missing feature on the Vive controllers. My imagination is running wild with the possibilities of these match with the new games Valve’s working on. I’m looking forward to that complete VR package from Valve. Hopefully we’ll see it arrive somewhere around 2020.

    • Flopdong says:

      I recently heard an analogy that I think works well to describe the current controllers. Oculus Touch is like a GameCube controller, Vive Controllers are like the original Xbox controller. Way too big, and not as ergonomic as they could be

  5. racccoon says:

    VR is not for human consumption, its an invention that has no health checking, its just out there. The best place for VR is for robots or space or military drones.
    The gullible gaming people who are currently experimenting with this self infliction, have no idea the damaged these things can do for them financially or health wise into the future as they are just guinea pigs in experiment.
    Plus VR games look like crap, go get chip in your brain instead, lol

  6. poliovaccine says:

    It occurs to me that the makers of virtual reality videogames may ultimately be responsible for the tech that brings us sweet holopads like they’ve got in Minority Report haha. That bit about tracking complex finger movements just got me way too excited for what it is.

    • grundus says:

      That tech already exists and it’s actually pretty good, it uses radar so it’s not dependent on you holding any controllers. I was at a big AV expo in February where there was a high density LED wall with radar finger tracking and you could move, scale, rotate, etc. windows on the display, exactly like Minority Report. Combine that with transparent OLED screen tech and you’ve got something extremely sci-fi with existing technology.

  7. Harlander says:

    Are these gonna be backwards-compatible with games that use the current gen controllers?

  8. Flopdong says:

    I’m excited for this. I think the original controllers for the Vive are garbage, inferior to the Oculus Touch controllers in pretty much every conceivable way. These knuckle controllers look like a huge improvement

  9. MajorLag says:

    I threw things all the time in Superhot VR and it didn’t feel too bad. Maybe that employs a certain amount of auto-aim though.

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