Earlier this year, Facebook turned “Oculus” into a household name by betting $2 billion that virtual reality is ready for primetime.
One problem with that vision, as we’ve written before, is that there’s no clear standard for controlling games and apps in VR yet. While many of Oculus’s official demos have repurposed Xbox 360 controllers — and the company that designed those controllers is now an Oculus subsidiary — third-party startups have made VR guns, gloves, ankle straps, treadmills and suits, just to name a few. With the go-to-market plan for the Oculus Rift still TBA, they’re all jockeying for early developers’ attention, creating a glut of geeky accessory hardware for a device few people currently own.
Well, here comes another control accessory — but one that the normals might actually want to use.
Leap Motion, the makers of a gesture-detecting sensor for PCs and Macs, announced today that it would sell a mount for any VR headset with a flat front, including both developer versions of the Oculus, that holds its sensor, as pictured below. The mount costs $20, and the Leap Motion sensor costs $80. Leap’s virtual reality integration is designed for its “v2″ software, currently in public beta and freely available to developers.
Here’s how it works: The mount holds the sensor in place so that as you turn your head, it can see wherever you’re looking, like a cyborg eye. Hold your hands up in that field of view and you’ll see a real-time skeletal rendering of all the joints, much as the Xbox’s Kinect can detect the joints and movements of the body; unlike the original Leap Motion software, which required users to hold their hands in very precise places, the new version is more versatile and can track all ten fingers where once it might have only seen two.
“If you tried to intertwine your fingers or grab something, all of those were challenging,” Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald said of the first software version. “With version 2, we’re able to track things even if the cameras can’t see them.”
Leap is selling the mount not to make money, Buckwald added, but because it needs to standardize where the sensor would go on a head-mounted display like the Rift.
In a demo of the rig at Leap’s San Francisco headquarters, I used my hands to bat away objects seemingly floating in the air around me. Then my demoer, CTO David Holz, put me in a different headset where he turned on the Leap Motion’s camera. All of a sudden, I could see not just my hands, but the room I was standing in.
That may sound dumb at first — you don’t need $450 of technology to see a room — but it opens up some interesting possibilities for augmented reality via virtual reality. The current Leap Motion’s cameras see in grayscale infrared, but a new version of the hardware, codenamed Dragonfly, can see in both color and infrared.
“With the infrared, we track the hands, and with the color, we’ll show you the rest of the world,” Holz said. “In the future, you can imagine a camera like this could track your position in the room.”
Developers will, for the first time, have access to the sensor’s raw image data to create those augmented reality experiences. Leap hopes to work with VR OEMs to integrate Dragonfly with future headsets, just as it works with HP currently to offer notebooks with a built-in sensor.
As with all those other control accessories, the success of this Leap VR integration will depend on what developers decide to do with it. But during the demo, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this exchange from my first interview for AllThingsD with Oculus co-founders Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell.
Q: And, for the foreseeable future, will players still need to use a handheld console-like controller?
Luckey: We don’t know yet.
Mitchell: Human-computer interaction and user input, especially for VR, is something that we’re constantly researching and evaluating.
Luckey: The reason we’re using gamepads (now) is that everyone knows how to use it, so we don’t need to teach a new [control] device while we’re demoing. But we do know that a keyboard, mouse or gamepad isn’t the best possible VR gaming interface.
Mitchell: It’s another abstraction. We’d love to — well, we’re exploring the possibilities.
Luckey: [waving hand] Use your imagination. [He and Mitchell both laugh]
Mitchell: Microsoft, with the new Kinect, is doing some really interesting stuff. Leap Motion is doing incredible stuff. This tech is out there. It’s a matter of packaging it just right for virtual reality, so that we’re putting players totally inside the game. We always joke, you want to look down in the game and go, ‘Yes, I’m Batman!’ And then you pull out your lightsaber or whatever it is — I know, I’m destroying canon here –
Luckey: — I, I’ll just leave that.