Both the HTC Vive and Oculus Touch controllers require very little direction, both feel like natural extensions of your hand, and both introduce fantastic new gesture opportunities into VR gaming. But Manus VR continues its work to make your hands the controller, with its VR gloves, under development and making their way toward final developer kit versions later this year.
We had a chance to try out a more extensive use of the gloves and also chat with Manus VR CEO, Stephan van den Brink, and CTO, Maarten Wittenveen during E3 last week.
There were two demonstrations, starting with Pillow's Willow, from Pillow Willow Game Studio. In this delightful puzzle game, first demonstrated at GDC in March, you get to help an orphan through a dream world, lighting her way by placing fireflies in lanterns, lowering a bridge, playing a magic tune on the piano, and so on. Each of these actions are aided by more precise gestures, like gently pinching the firefly between thumb and forefinger. The visual experience is compelling, as is the game, which will evolve to be much more in depth, with plenty of episodes and new, more difficult challenges.
The second demonstration was simply a tech showcase, but before I describe that, it’s probably important to get a refresh on the actual glove-ware. The glove contains a controller unit, with all of the electronics and the battery and the wireless communications (Bluetooth Low Energy and RF). In the prototype, these are connected sensors on each finger at the top knuckle.
In the developer version, there will be a second sensor on the next finger joint for even more precision. Today, there is no IMU on the thumb, but there will be later on so that you can get thumb rotation factored into gestures.
In the prototype the company has been showing off, all of the finger sensors are connected by to the controller via separate foils and wires. In the developer kit version, the wires are gone. All of the finger sensors are on a single foil, with an FFC connector to the PCB. Thus, the glove now has a more elegant and clean design, except for what looks like a rectangular growth on your wrist.
In addition, the fingertips are gone, allowing more breathability, and there’s an air gap in the glove right below the thumb for the same purpose. The fabric is still being improved, but the developer kit is more breathable, the company said. It uses anti-bacterial fabrics, and it’s completely washable, as well.
I felt as if I was wearing lightweight workout gloves, even with the Vive controllers strapped onto my wrists. (Those controllers are required for Lighthouse positional tracking, which makes sense, but introduces the only unfortunate fly in an otherwise smooth ointment.)
Which brings us back to the tech demo: Manus VR uses a robotics concept called inverse kinematics to map what is tracked (hands and head position) to show you a physiological representation of your arms, all the way up to your shoulders. The technique uses mathematics to calculate joint location and movement from those known points to predict elbow joint location, and so on. It’s eerily real. Manus VR created an algorithm for this, and the company thinks it will allow developers to create even more realistic characters and movement.
As with most new aspects of this very new VR ecosystem, Manus VR gloves require developers to make use of them, and to that end there are SDKs for Unity and Unreal game engines. Gestures made with the gloves are independent from the Vive controllers, but all of the data comes together in the game engine. Developers can make gesture-based games, where they simply map a gesture to an action within a game, including pre-existing Vive actions (a trigger pull mapped to a hand grab, for example), but there is also opportunity to create physics-based interactions, where objects behave naturally in response to more precise gestures. For example, you could pick up a small glass with thumb and finger, and the glass would naturally swivel a bit, as if on a hinge. These object-based physics actions will naturally be more immersive and lifelike.
Manus VR claimed that developer response has been good--not just for gaming, but for social VR, and even B2B training and simulation. The company continues to press its case with the likes of HTC (could we see a future Vive with Manus VR gloves included?), Sony for PSVR, and even Oculus, which is obviously focused on its own Touch Controller. Manus VR would probably have to create a bracelet (as it has with HTC Vive controllers) with constellation tracking to combine the gloves with Oculus Touch. Because the gloves work with Bluetooth, they are also ready-made for Android, and the company sees Google DayDream as a promising target, as well.
Manus VR said the data is transmitted to the PC in approximately 5 ms and does not create additional, meaningful computational load.
This is all very much a work in progress. At times, not every finger was tracked, in particular my pinky, and often other fingers as well. Sometimes the tracking was just slightly off, although during Pillow's Willow (which doesn't require too much fine motor precision), I didn't really experience any latency or inaction. Thumb rotation is a crucial, natural element, so that will be a welcome addition. In the full arm demo, all of my joint movements looked quite natural, but my shoulders seemed as if they had been moved in by a few inches on each side of my body.
The development kits will be ready later this year, with further improvements I'm sure, and followed, one hopes, by more promising content.