Tackling the next VR challenge: two ways of controlling our virtual selves

There was a lot of talk about VR at CES last week. It seems like the technology may finally be coming of age after a false start a few decades ago. Samsung's Gear VR has semi-launched and the Oculus Rift is at just about every show, always promising to be coming soon. Sony has Project Morpheus (though we haven't heard much from them lately). Razer showed off something called OSVR, and there were still more.

So it seems like a pretty sure thing that consumer VR visors will be here soon, and now companies are starting to think about how to make VR interactive. Think about it; if you're enclosed in a VR world it's going to be pretty awkward groping around for your mouse and keyboard. Gamepads might be a better fit but they don't really add to the immersion since gamepad controls are so abstract.

There were a couple of interesting products designed to solve the VR control problem at the show. The first was Razor's STEM system. STEM uses a central base unit plus anywhere from one to five trackers that are either held or attached to the body or a VR headset. Adi Roberston at The Verge got to take STEM for a test drive and she seemed to like it. Here's a clip of her having fun with virtual lightsabers:

The only drawback to STEM that I can see is the price. You can pre-order a 2-Tracker package for $299.99. Adding a third tracker, probably to attach to a VR visor for head tracking, brings the cost up to $389.99 and the full five tracker (the final two attach to your feet or ankles) bundle is $579.99. Hopefully prices on devices like the STEM will drop quickly.

Even more elaborate is the Virtuix Omnidirectional Treadmill. First let's see it in action, thanks to Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica:

I'd heard about the Virtuix before; what I didn't realize is that it has no moving parts. Instead you're standing on a slippery concave service and wearing special shoes that further reduce friction. Couple that with a harness that helps support you and you're basically moon-walking in place. Sensors on the shoes are tracked by the system in order to read how fast your simulated self should be moving.

It seems like a great system if you have the room for it, and again there's the whole price issue. You can pre-order the package that comes with everything you need for $499. If someone else in your family wants to use it and wears a different size shoe than you do, extra shoes are $49 a pair. The harness comes in different sizes too, so if you're a big person and live with a small person you might need a second harness ($79). The thing also weighs 160 lbs so you're probably going to want to set it up somewhere and leave it set up.

I'm really interested to see how controls systems like these are received. Remember the motion controller fad in video games, and how it went nowhere? Now using a motion controller in a VR space is probably much different, and I'm assuming these new gadgets are a lot more precise than earlier motion controls have been. What I remember about motion controls is how quickly I got tired when using them. While there'll be some people who embrace combining a workout with gaming, I think a lot more will be looking for less strenuous ways to control their VR avatars. I'm just not yet sure what those controls will look like.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon