VR Will Be About Using Your Hands

by Malte Skarupke

I have been cautiously optimistic about VR for a while: DK1 and DK2 made me feel motion sick pretty quickly, but I could see that there was something neat there. Being able to effortlessly look around changes how the game feels. When you could lean forward in the DK2, it highlighted how constrained our camera has always been in games. Still I didn’t quite get what this would be useful for other than puzzle games.

The obvious use case is for news reports and videos. When I now see pictures from Syria I want to have a 360 degree picture to be able to look around and get a better feel for the situation. But for video games, VR didn’t quite click for me.

At GDC I played two games that used the Oculus and Vive controllers, and now I finally get what you can do with VR  in gamesthat you can’t do otherwise: You can use your own hands to interact with things in the virtual world.

The demo that impressed me most was Epic’s Bullet Train:

In Bullet Train bullets go into slow motion as they get close to you. You can pick them out of the air, turn them around, and watch them whizz away again towards your enemies. And it feels like you’re using your own hands for this. You soon realize that you can give the bullets a little momentum by flicking them and it feels amazing.

I played this with the Oculus Touch controller, but you very quickly forget that you’re using a controller. Just like when using a classical controller, you’re soon immersed in the game and you forgot that you’re pressing buttons or moving sticks. There are also a few small tricks they do to help with the illusion: In the game you see your movement as hands, and your brain quickly accepts those hands as your own hands. Additionally the buttons on the controller are very touch sensitive. Just resting your finger on a button will make that finger move in VR. Pressing the button will make the finger close in to grab something. It feels natural.

The other game I played was Fantastic Contraption:

Just look at how naturally she moves her hands to build things in there. The video is pretty long and you don’t have to watch all of it. The point is: In VR, video games allow you to use your hands and it actually works.

The Wii and the Kinect promised something similar, but they were both kinda crap. The Playstation Move was supposed to be better (I never actually tried it) but there is still that disconnect that you’re moving your hand in front of you and something happens far away on a screen. In VR you’re moving your hands in front of you and they also move in front of you in the game. It works the way it should.

In the above video there are many points where she moves her hands outside of her field of vision. Either to drop something behind her or to grab something on her side that she knows is there. That kind of sptial reasoning would have been impossible with older motion controllers.

Pool Nation is a game where it looks like they stumbled across this by accident:

I don’t know if they had planned for the interactions with the bottles and other bar items, but I can see exactly how it would have happened by accident: As soon as you put on VR goggles and VR controllers and you see a bottle standing off to the side, you will want to reach for it, pick it up, and maybe toss it somewhere. You want to use your hands. As soon as the developers put that in, all the other interactions shown in the video come naturally.

I believe this last video best captures what VR will be about a couple years from now. I think this ability to use your hands like you would expect to will be the defining feature of early successful VR games. It’s the feature that finally convinced me that you can make games in VR that you couldn’t make outside of it. Remember how hyped people were about motion controllers when the Wii came out? The feature actually works now.

Oh also I’m happy to report that I didn’t feel motion sick in the VR games I played at GDC. As someone who was quickly affected by that in the dev kits, I can report that they have that figured out well enough now that I can play for at least fifteen minutes without noticing anything.