Hands on: Oculus Rift review

The dream of virtual reality is finally coming true

What is a hands on review?
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Oculus Touch controllers

Oculus Touch controllers

Oculus Touch won't be available for Rift at launch as Oculus wanted more time to perfect the controllers. The company plans to release them in the second half of 2016, at which time it will also launch a number of games that will take advantage of hand tracking.

The company told me it's improved the controllers in a number of areas, and I was able to test a recently refined version of Touch a few weeks ago.

This was my first time using Oculus' proprietary peripheral for Rift, incorporating at long last my hands into a virtual reality experience.

I used Touch to play a game called VR Sports Challenge, and while I was gripping the controllers with my own hands, what I saw in the game was a computer-generated pair of hands.

While these mitts weren't mine, when I saw them, it felt right. There wasn't that, "Wait, where did my hands go?!" moment, which can happen - even on a subconscious level - when you're using the Xbox One controller and you look down with the headset on.

The hands in VR Sports Challenge were male and only went to partway up the wrist or forearm before fading into the scenery, but it didn't bother me to have these disembodied stranger's hands acting as my own. I was too enraptured with their ability to shoot a basketball and take snaps before attempting a touchdown pass to care.

VR Sports Challenge

Haptic feedback gives you the sensation that you're grabbing and holding onto the ball, and letting go of it when you release the trigger button. It's a subtle effect that almost tricks you into thinking you're playing with tangible objects.

While I found the controllers to be as well designed as Rift, it might be better if they were a heavier so they feel more substantial in your real-life hands. I can see why the controllers have that same hollow feel as the headset, though: Oculus doesn't want you to get tired while you're playing. Still, when I went to chuck a football or flicked my wrist to shoot a basketball, it felt like I was putting in more effort than the controllers warranted. It didn't feel completely satisfying.

A thin black rope loops Touch to your wrist, like Wii remote controllers. Someone assisted me in slipping the loop on, so it's likely you'll need a helper at home, have to put them on yourself before the headset, or generally know where they are once you have the Rift covering your eyes.

Touch controllers

With the Touch controllers, I dominated a 3-point shooting contest, failed miserably at being a football quarterback (I'm a much better virtual wide receiver, it turns out), and soared in a slam dunk contest. While I wasn't performing hold and release motions with my hands in the real world, the controllers executed their commands proficiently.

The controllers were polished, but they felt like they have one too many buttons and knobs, and some of the command options weren't intuitive. In the slam dunk contest, for example, I was supposed to be able to switch the basketball between my hands by letting go of the trigger in one hand and pushing down the other.

Oculus Touch controllers

It was a lot harder than it sounds when you're also trying to focus on what's going on in the game and releasing the basketball at just the right moment by also letting go of the triggers to put it in the basket. It felt like perhaps the A button should have let me release the basketball while the triggers let me do tricks.

Maybe that's a kink for VR Sports Challenge to work out, or something Oculus needs to consider when it comes to how developers are able to implement controls.

Having the use of your hands in VR makes a substantial difference in how immersive the experience is, though for the right games: I didn't feel the need to have my hands in most of the other launch titles I tried.

Oculus Touch controllers

ADR1FT and RPG Damaged Core both come to mind though as titles where it would have been awesome to reach out and grab life-saving oxygen tanks with the controllers, or position them like I was holding a rifle.

ADR1FT Creative Director Adam Orth of Three One Zero told me it was too late to add Touch support to the game, but said the team is already working on incorporating it in another title.

The limits of Touch

The ability to move my arms to execute in-game motions and seeing hands - however unrealistic they may be - turned me into an active participant in a VR world for the first time ever.

As opposed to sitting in a chair with a controller in my lap, I was now standing, shooting and throwing, my whole entire engaged. Even though I didn't need to, I squared up as if I was actually going to shoot a basketball and dropped back to pass the virtual football because I had the perspective of a player court and gridiron.

In real life, I was holding onto nothing except the Touch controllers, but they allowed more of my body to participate in VR. It's incredible the difference that makes.

What's frustrating, however, is that I wasn't using genuine hand and finger motions to perform the actions I was seeing in the game. Even though I could see a pair of hands holding the basketball or football in front of me as if I had just picked them up and was about to hurl them towards their targets, all I was really doing was pressing some buttons.

VR Sports Challenge basketball

To throw a football to someone or shoot a basketball in the real world, my body instinctively takes over. My fingers know just how to flick, my wrist knows how to turn, and my hand knows how to position itself for accuracy.

It didn't quite compute, then, when I had to parse those motions down to the restrictions of a controller that only needs me to press a few buttons to execute the moves. I still had to make motions with my arms, yes, but it was that final act of "letting go" that left me wanting more.

There are third-party solutions in the works that allow users to turn real-life hand and finger motions into VR commands, but those are a ways off from making it to consumers, and may never even become Rift compatible.

Maybe with more play time I would learn the nuances of VR Sports Challenge and it would all run more smoothly and I wouldn't care about pressing buttons, but as-is Touch provides greater immersion - up to a certain point.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.