Thanks to Facebook’s billion-dollar acquisition of gaming firm Oculus, virtual reality has become a cash cow. Facebook/Oculus and rivals like Sony’s Project Morpheus feel that the future of gaming will consist of immersive, 360-degree environments—and that virtual reality games don’t quite fit in with the video game controllers and Kinect-like motion tools of today. The next frontier for gaming is using the human body as a video game controller—and being able to control avatars with your hands, fingers, and feet.
Being inside the game is amazing. It’s also an amazingly complicated technical challenge. Using the human body as an input device requires constructing an array of sensors, endlessly tinkering with software libraries, and dealing with thousands and thousands of variables. People who are 6’4" and 300 lbs. and who are 5’1" and 110 lbs. will both be using your company’s platform. Interfaces have to be intuitive enough for casual gamers but full-capacity enough for hardcore gamers. Then you have to account for everything from sweating too much on a hot day to making sure calibration won’t go out of sync when, say, a fly buzzes by.
Fast Company recently reported on Survios, a Los Angeles-based startup which users positional trackers and Sixense controllers to control virtual reality avatars with body movements. Another southern California company called Control VR is going even further—and creating sensor-filled gloves which replicate virtual reality motions down to the individual finger. They are part of an ecosystem that includes Microsoft’s Kinect and other small startups like PrioVR.
Control VR’s product, which recently raised over $400,000 on Kickstarter, is a glove and SDK platform the company claims "is a next-generation wearable technology that turns your hands into the ultimate intuitive controller for PCs, tablets, virtual reality and robotics." In a demonstration at the company’s loft offices on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, I tried out the company’s product in a demonstration. While there were slight sync problems, my astronaut avatar in the mini-game i was playing made the exact same finger motions as me. The precision, down to the fingers, was fascinating. Even if the technology isn’t ready for prime time, it was still amazing to try out.
Once the glove, which is filled with sensors and vaguely resembles a cybernetic prosthesis from a science fiction movie, is put on, and the user undergoes a quick initialization process, the hand itself is turned into the controller for the virtual reality simulation. Much like Survios’ product or the Kinect, it was fascinating—the player themselves are turned into the controller.
But for Control VR, even though they might talk about gaming, the real money is likely to come from the enterprise sector. Although my conversation with CEO Alex Sarnoff centered around the device’s gaming uses, the technology they use comes from an industrial background. Control VR’s CTO Ali Kord is the founder and CEO of Synertial, which has sold their motion capture technology to the company and already licensed their technology to NASA, Samsung, Ford, Ubisoft, and defense giant Raytheon.
Sarnoff claims Control VR offers a similar experience for the gamer at an under $300 price point to Synertial’s motion capture equipment systems, which he says sell for $30,000-$150,000. As Oculus Rift makes its way toward commercial reality, the enterprise is going to find out that virtual reality is a game changer for everything from worker education to operating robots to product testing.