Friday, October 14, 2016

Hands-on impressions of the Oculus Touch; its killer feature that might enable Oculus Rift to win the desktop VR war



The Touch is truly a gamechanger in the desktop VR battle but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.



So I got to try out the Oculus Touch. If you want the TLDR: it's a must-buy if you have the Oculus Rift.  Before I discuss why, I'd like to revisit the Oculus Rift. I have demo'd the Rift a few times before but today was my first demo after I had already bought the Vive and become very familiar with it.  With my greater familiarity with the Vive, I can now more easily identify differences between them.

OCULUS RIFT

The Rift headset feels very light compared to the Vive or even the Gear VR. It is very easy to put it on, just like a baseball cap, without having to adjust it to feel secure on the head. By comparison, putting on the Vive feels more fiddly and if you don't adjust it properly, it feels like it could slip off.
I had a hard time getting a clear focus.  There's an IPD adjustment, but my problem was the actual focus.  The screen could be clear if I moved the visor away, but there's no way to adjust the distance from the eyes to the lenses (unlike the HTC Vive and Gear VR).  Since I couldn't get it perfectly in focus, I couldn't evaluate the sharpness compared to the Vive.
Nonetheless, I was able to discern some important differences.  When I first tried the Rift and Vive months ago, my initial impression had been that there was little difference between them. With the benefit of more experience with the Vive, however, my opinion has changed. I now believe the Vive has better optics for two reasons: first, the Rift has a little distortion at the outer edges of the frame. It's not distracting especially during gameplay but it's there.
Second, the Rift's 3D depth seems noticeably less than the Vive's depth. It's as if images look flatter than the images on the Vive.
If we're talking only about the headset (not the controller or the software), I would conclude the Vive is better.
With respect to software, it depends what type of games you prefer. If you like games that are polished and are more similar to games you already play, except that they are in VR, then you would probably prefer games for the Rift such as Damaged Core. If you prefer games that use VR creatively and in innovative ways, even though majority of them are only partially finished, then you would probably like HTC Vive, with games such as Space Pirate Trainer.
An advantage of the Rift is that it now features both asynchronous timewarp and asynchronous spacewarp. Both of these are software techniques that allow the Rift to run reasonably on a lower-spec PC. Oculus therefore made a new designation called "Oculus-Ready," apart from their recommended "VR-Ready" specifications.
Finally, one more notable difference between the Rift and Vive is Steam VR. It has a lenient return policy for games that you end up disliking. You can return any game for a full refund as long as you've played it less than 2 hours it's been less than 2 weeks since you downloaded it. With Oculus Home, there is no return policy. On the other hand, Oculus Home has helpful ratings for comfort (i.e. propensity for nausea), ranging from Comfortable to Intense.

OCULUS TOUCH

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Although the HTC Vive's controllers are comfortable to use, the Oculus Touch's ergonomics are far beyond those of the Vive controllers.  They feel like they bespoke controllers for my hand specifically.  They feel that natural.

The Oculus Touch is very light.  I think it makes it easier to forget that you have them in your hands.  I also like that the mass is centered on the handle.  Altogether, it feels very balanced.  Although the Vive controllers are large, they are also light (lighter than a Playstation DualShock 4 controller or an Xbox controller) but not as light as those of the Oculus Touch.  I wouldn't describe them as 'bottom-heavy' but the center of mass feels slightly below the handle. 


In terms of buttons, the Oculus Touch has a joystick and two buttons on top, plus a trigger button and a side button (4 buttons in all plus a joystick).  The Vive controller has a clickable trackpad, a trigger, two side buttons, a menu button, and a home button.  The biggest difference between their controls is that on the Touch, the joystick, top buttons, and trigger button are all capacitive (touch sensitive).  The Rift can detect when you're resting your fingers on them but not pressing them.  This can be used to simulate finger tracking. For example, if your thumb is not resting on any of the buttons while your trigger finger is resting on the trigger, the Rift infers that you are making a thumbs-up sign. On the Vive controllers, only the trackpad is touch-sensitive. However, the Vive's large clickable trackpad can be used to simulate several virtual buttons.

Both the Oculus Touch and Vive controllers have haptic feedback.  This isn't just the simple rumble function commonly found in controllers.  Both the Touch and Vive controllers can "shape" the waveform of the vibration.  This allows them to simulate a wider range of sensations.  For example, on the Vive, when you're drawing a virtual bow, the controller gives a subtle vibration that makes it feel like you're really pulling a string.  Although both the Touch and Vive have this type of haptic feedback, the haptic feedback on the Oculus Touch is not as strong as those of the Vive on the games that I tried.  It might be due to smaller motors used to keep the Touch's weight low.

One thing I appreciate about Vive controllers is their durability. They are very tough. There are many videos of Vive controllers surviving impacts against walls and other objects. Obviously I haven't tested the durability of the Touch controllers :) .

Let's talk about tracking.  Tracking on both the Touch and Vive are very good.  I can move my hands quickly, and the controllers would be tracked 1 to 1, with zero lag.  However, if the Rift's two cameras (the one that came with the Rift, plus the one that comes with the Touch) are positioned on either side of the user as recommended by Oculus, then the Touch sensors can be easily occluded if the user turns around.   For this reason, Oculus recommends that if you want 360-degree tracking, the second camera has to be positioned at the opposite corner of the play area.  Moreover, the Rift's camera has a smaller field of view than the Vive's base stations.  Therefore, for roomscale-VR, Oculus recommends three cameras (you'll need to buy a third camera separately).

So how do all these come together for games?  I was able to demo two games: Insomniac's Unspoken, a magical combat game, and The Climb, a rock-climbing game.


In Unspoken, you engage in magical battles against other sorcerors in a gritty urban environment.  It's a very fun game with beautiful graphics.  You use the Touch controllers to create fireballs and hurl them at the enemy, as you hold a shield with your other hand, or you can forge a javelin by striking an anvil with your hammer.  Using motion controllers enhanced my feeling of immersion and I doubt it would be nearly as enjoyable with only a gamepad.  My only comment is that I don't think it used the [simulated] finger tracking of the Oculus Touch.  It seems like it could have just been the same with the Vive controller.


The Climb is a rock-climbing game.  It was one of the release titles for the Oculus Rift and I specifically chose to try it because I had previously played it with the gamepad.  With the gamepad, I didn't really enjoy the game despite enjoying the graphics and immersion because I found the controls confusing.  The Oculus Touch transforms this game.  Instead of awkward gamepad controls, the Touch was perfect for this game.  In fact, the Oculus rep didn't have to explain how to use the controls, and indeed, it felt so natural to use the Touch that I don't even recall what buttons I pressed to use the controllers because the controls were that transparent and intuitive.

Playing these games, I would say that the Touch created a slightly stronger feeling of "hand presence" -- the feeling that the virtual hands were my hands. The difference in hand presence was not as significant as I thought it would be.  In fact, there are a few games on the Vive such as Thrill of the Fight (a boxing game), where I feel the Vive controllers conveyed a hand presence that was just as strong as the Touch.

THE TOUCH'S KILLER FEATURE?
Having tried the Oculus Touch, I would say that it's a must-buy for the Oculus Rift, unless you only want to play flight sims or racing sims (in which case, it would be best to have a HOTAS or steering wheel).  The Touch is overall better than the Vive controllers (for ergonomics and functionality), but not by much, and this is balanced by the Vive's better tracking. 
However, the Touch has one killer feature: cross-compatibility. In other words, it enables you to use the Oculus Rift to play HTC Vive games -- almost all of them, if not all of them.  Even games that weren't designed for the Rift, or which say they only support the HTC Vive.  This is because Valve added Steam VR support for the Oculus Rift, Oculus Touch and Oculus cameras:


Until now, Oculus Rift users couldn't play most of the Vive games because they required motion controls (unless they had a Razer Hydra or similar motion controller).  But now, if you have the Oculus Touch and the Rift, you can play all games for the Rift plus almost all games for the Vive.  If you have the Vive, you can play all games for the Vive, plus some games for the Rift (through Revive).  If you care only about Vive games, then this makes no difference.  But if you like games for the Vive and at least some of the games for the Rift, it seems that Oculus Rift would be the logical choice, as long as you are ok with a more inconvenient setup for roomscale VR (you'll need a third camera/sensor with a very long USB extension cord).
TBH, I feel uneasy saying that because if we're only comparing the products themselves, I still believe the HTC Vive is better (better tracking system, better 3D effect, etc.).  Even with software, the Oculus Rift games are more polished on the average, but HTC Vive games tend to make better use of VR in my opinion. So the only reason the Rift might be the logical choice is simply because HTC and Valve chose to leave their systems open for the benefit of consumers. Meanwhile, Facebook and Oculus chose to have a closed system to prioritize their self-interest. Oculus is even paying developers to make their software exclusive to the Rift, whereas HTC and Valve are against exclusivity. To Oculus' credit, they reversed a previous decision to require a Rift for Oculus Home apps. But they're not opening Oculus Home to HTC Vive either. Choosing the Rift because of this uneven playing field somehow seems wrong to me. But I'll leave that for you to decide.

The Oculus Touch is available for preorder for $199 with delivery on December 6. The Oculus Rift is $599 with free shipping on Amazon.

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