Microsoft’s new VR controllers will be great—until SteamVR “Knuckles” arrive

Thursday’s Microsoft Build keynote included a repeated call from Technical Fellow Alex Kipman about the importance of mixed reality (meaning, virtual reality headsets and their “augmented” reality siblings like Hololens). This platform will drive “the future of computing,” he said, and he repeated Microsoft’s call to ushering the MR era on a wide scale: by offering people a reasonably priced, low-fuss path to trying it out.

The company’s latest call echoes what it has already said about this platform, known as Windows Holographic: a bunch of headsets made by third-party vendors, starting at $299. Today’s announcement confirmed the first Windows Holographic bundle with a unique controller. This $399 bundle will launch “this fall” and will include a headset made by Acer and a pair of “VR motion controllers” made by Microsoft.

Just from the reveal, we can already determine a few things: that the controllers could be really damned cool, but that they could also be rendered irrelevant before their “fall” launch by at least one other intriguing piece of hardware.

Price, inside-out tracking matter

Before we get there, let’s sum up the other VR news from today. “Developer kit” versions of HP’s and Acer’s Windows Holographic headsets are now officially available for pre-order from the Microsoft Store for $329.99 and $299.99, respectively. These pre-orders do not include the controllers. The HP and Acer headsets appear to have identical specs, including a pair of 1440×1440 panels (one per eye), 90Hz refresh rate, a combination HDMI/USB 3.0 plug via 4m cable, and that all-important “inside-out” tracking system.

Microsoft’s VR motion controllers are the first major announced VR input devices that support this inside-out method of tracking. This means the headset itself will look for and track wherever these controllers go. Other major options on the VR market either require discrete, separate tracking devices (IR sensors for the HTC Vive, USB-connected IR cameras for Oculus) or offer a fake, gyroscope-fueled “sense” of hand location (Google Daydream).

We’ve already discussed how this clears some major hurdles in terms of VR adoption. Really, the combination of the whole package—a cheaper-than-new-phone headset, designed for low-spec Windows machines, with no extra webcams or sensors required—removes most of the VR friction. You don’t need a new computer, according to Microsoft’s promises. For the cost of a new gaming console, you could get into VR.

For $100 more, you can do so with controllers that split the difference between Oculus Touch and the Vive wands. Like the Touch, Microsoft’s controllers include a sensor ring above your fingers (which lights up for the sake of inside-out tracking) and some joysticks. Like the Vive, it includes a trackpad for subtler finger-tap input. And like both controllers, it comes with distinct “trigger” and “grip” buttons.

Inside-out tracking only works for hands and wands when they’re in your headset’s field of view. In these controllers’ cases, that’s totally fine. The PlayStation VR system has a limited field of view, with its single webcam, and there is indeed a strange sense of disconnect when “hands” pop into and out of view. VR software is typically designed to guess where your hands may have gone or to fill in the blanks for those milliseconds that it loses tracking. As a result, when you move a tracked controller out of the afforded field of view, expect to see glitches.

But you don’t need your entire room tracked at all times to make VR controllers convincing enough. This is straight-up WYSIWYG. Look at hands, see hands. Good enough. And if Microsoft Holographic’s inside-out tracking rig can catch inputs roughly 10 to 20 degrees outside the headsets’ field of view (95 degrees horizontally), then it can even account for those edge-of-view glitches that other headsets sometimes suffer from.

Pretty complicated—but could they support a Halo game?

Microsoft’s solution to VR control is clearly “combine the other PC platforms’ features, somehow.” These MS wands have a lot of stuff going on. They’ll cleanly support existing apps, though perhaps at the cost of overwhelming new adopters. Whenever I hand a Vive wand to a new VR user, one of the first things I hear, after “whoaaaaa,” is a plea for help: “Wait, which button does what again?” From the look of Microsoft’s offering, expect to multiply that confusion by a few.

On the one hand, Microsoft wants its first official wand to make everyone happy. On the other, however, maybe the company’s first VR “mouse” should err on the side of simplicity and elegance. Microsoft has an opportunity to lead here, and, instead, the company loudly confirms that it is a big, fat follower. People gave Apple hell for years for its one-button mouse, but what if it had gone the other direction and been topped with a joystick, a trackpad, and multiple distinct buttons?

I belabor this because existing VR apps already scale to limited buttons. Interoperability between HTC Vive and Oculus Touch is usually just a few tweaks away, and most VR games and apps revolve around only a few inputs, as opposed to overt, complicated button systems. Pick a thing up, “grip” a thing in your hand, activate a menu for more. Maybe use a button or aiming prompt to move around VR space.

Of course, there’s always the chance that these VR motion controllers are launching “this fall” for a reason: to coincide with Microsoft’s upcoming Project Scorpio console. If they were meant to be interoperable, however, their lack of Xbox-styled buttons makes us wonder how that would work, exactly. PlayStation VR has proven out that things like menu navigation and existing-app support fall apart for console VR without legacy button support. We’ll be keeping an eye out for these possibly connecting to a true future for Xbox VR.

Excited about a Knuckles add-on (no, this isn’t 1994)

Either way, by the time Microsoft’s option hits the market, SteamVR may have wiped the floor with them. The “Knuckles” controller is coming. (This is the common code word, with a capital K, used by people in the know, not an official name.) My inbox is currently teeming with “don’t quote me” e-mails from VR game makers who are allowed to disclose that these controllers exist and are perhaps more awesome than has already been publicly confirmed. In other words, the Knuckles may very well have its own combination of inside-out tracking and low price. (That is only a guess.)

A 2016 prototype of the SteamVR "Knuckles" controller.

What we know for sure is that SteamVR’s Knuckles slip onto a hand—over the fingers, situated on the crook between your thumb and index finger, and comfortably pressed against your knuckles. Your thumb and fingers can reach buttons easily, and trackable sensor points appear all the way around. No matter how you situate your hand, it can still be picked up by whatever tracking system it employs. You don’t have to constantly hold anything, unlike even the comfortable Oculus Touch controllers. It’s just there, and while there’s some plastic bulk for the sensors, Knuckles is not heavy. And again, this is just what we’ve gathered from the publicly disclosed info from 2016’s Steam Dev Days conference. That prototype has almost certainly seen revisions.

VR still has a ways to go before it accomplishes affordable, believable immersion. We may be seeing higher-res screens, fewer cords, smoother “movement” systems (aka walking around in virtual worlds), and even more trackable body parts (legs, arms) before very long. But the first three steps, as far as I’m concerned, are as follows: first, deliver a convincing view of another world, in which your head movements are met by a high-refresh pair of panels against your eyes. Second, deliver a way to track hand motion so that we can interact with virtual worlds. And third, make the feeling of virtual hand movement melt away so that you no longer feel like you’re holding some sort of controller.

The first two steps have been nailed by pretty much every major player in the VR space—and unless Microsoft’s inside-out tracking system really stinks, they’ll probably nail that step as well. But if Windows Holographic headsets were ready for Hololens-level hand tracking, in which users could just pinch and wave their unencumbered hands in virtual space to interact, these Microsoft controllers wouldn’t exist. Step 3 is still up for grabs—and SteamVR’s Knuckles may very well grab it in incredibly comfortable, slip-on-the-hand fashion, perhaps before Microsoft’s wands even come to market.

That’s probably fine in Microsoft’s eyes. The company’s public statements include a call for all hardware to come together by way of Holographic compatibility. That means, no matter what hardware you use, you can connect to a common family of apps and experiences.

But hardware leadership comes with name cache, and Microsoft’s seemingly innocent hardware reveal points out what an opportunity SteamVR has with its Knuckles. More information—including price, sensing details, whether they’ll work with other headsets—and whether HTC is making them, will answer whether anybody really cashes in on this opportunity.

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