Virtual reality for beginners: Everything you need to know to wrap your head around VR

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Mouse and keyboard: I know it hurts, PC faithful. It hurts to rank the controller above the mouse and keyboard. I promise this will be the only time.

But it’s for good reason. Here’s an experiment you can try at home: Put on a blindfold and try to use your mouse and keyboard. And if you think that’s not too bad—maybe you touch-type 100+ words per minute—try sitting back in your chair, reciting the alphabet, then reaching your hands out again to grab your mouse and keyboard.

Congrats, you now sort of understand what it’s like to use the Oculus Rift with a mouse and keyboard—to say nothing of the fact that having your hands on your desk at all times limits your movement and thus limits your interaction with a VR environment.

Gamepad: The compromise most people use is the ol’ Xbox 360 gamepad. At this point it’s safe to assume a hefty portion of PC gaming enthusiasts own one, and for VR, it’s a bit easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. There are fewer buttons to worry about, the buttons are more distinctive, and you can sit back from your desk with the controller in your lap.

Xbox One controller

Microsoft's Xbox One gamepad will be the default controller that comes bundled with the Oculus Rift.

This solution is so common in modern VR that Oculus partnered with Microsoft—when the Consumer Rift launches next year, it will come with an Xbox One controller.

It’s a half-measure though. It’s still not real on the same level as some other control schemes.

Specialist controls: Which brings us to this category, encompassing everything from racing wheels to flight sticks to that model spaceship cockpit you built in your garage.

Flight sticks, et al aren’t perfect but they do bring you a measure closer to “real” controls. Playing Elite: Dangerous on the PC for instance, the best way to fly in VR is to pick up a HOTAS (hand on throttle and stick) system because it sort of mimics the controls you’ll see in the virtual cockpit.

flight stick Mace Ojala/Creative Commons

VR will give you a new excuse to bust out a flight stick beyond scratching that nostalgic Flight Simulator itch.

The drawback? Specialist controls are pretty much only useful in cockpit games. There are quite a few of those because the Rift is a stationary (and, until recently, seated) platform, but eventually you’ll probably want to do something with your VR headset outside of “Drive a car” or “Pilot a mech” or “Fly a plane/spaceship.”

Motion controls: The last, and most complicated, category is motion controls. This is a catch-all category—some of the options here are essentially retooled controllers, while others are full-body tracking.

At the lower end are “wands.” Both Oculus and Valve have wand solutions (as well as Sony’s console-only Project Morpheus). This is basically a glorified controller, but retrofitted for VR. If you’ve ever played the Nintendo Wii, you’ll understand the basic concept—you’re holding a controller in each hand.

These controllers are then tracked, providing one-to-one motion in a VR environment. Put simply, you can use your hands in VR. Sort of. Valve’s wands, as of GDC, had only a single button governing whether your hands were opened or closed. Oculus’s version, dubbed Touch, is a bit more sophisticated—but not by much.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift being used with optional Touch VR controllers.

It’s enough, though. This is by far the best commercially-viable option at the moment. The major problem is that it seems only Valve will include wands in the basic kit—Oculus is content with people using an Xbox controller for now. That’s a shame because adding hand-tracking into VR is enough to tip you close to the fabled “Presence,” even though the ultimate goal is full-body tracking.

For the latter, we turn to the longstanding love/hate relationship with Microsoft’s Kinect. Yes, the Kinect is janky. Yes, even the second generation. It’s just not a great piece of hardware, especially in the ways Microsoft originally intended.

It is, however, a fantastic hobbyist tool. Plenty of VR enthusiasts have hacked together Kinect games for the Rift, allowing the device to “see” the player and track not just hands but every part of the body. This lets you jump, duck, kick, elbow, and all sorts of other verbs that can’t be accomplished solely with hand- and head-tracking.

There’s also a niche push for omnidirectional treadmills. One of the big problems in VR is you’re confined to a single space. The omnidirectional treadmill (such as the $700 Virtuix Omni) allows you to “walk” in virtual reality. There’s plenty of potential here, but it’s hard to know whether these devices will take off—because they take up quite a bit of space, because they’re expensive, and because people are lazy.

For now, all you really need to know is this: Gamepads work, but hand-tracking is your best bet. That’s the only one you’re likely to buy anyway, so there’s no need to worry yourself with the Kinect or an omnidirectional treadmill.

New media

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the primary use for virtual reality at the moment is gaming. That’s not too surprising—most games are already built from entirely virtual environments, so it’s relatively easy to translate the experience to a VR headset (though games built solely to take advantage of VR’s unique capabilities are obviously best).

That being said, there are quite a few practical non-gaming uses for VR. Oculus has seen Rifts used in healthcare, in architecture, in prototyping, in film, et cetera.

Film is a particularly hot-button subject. The first “film” for VR, Zero Point, released on Steam last year, and it’s just the first of many. Samsung’s mobile GearVR platform has multiple 360-degree video apps allowing you to experience a helicopter tour of Iceland, follow snowboarders down a mountain, and much (much) more. Google even dedicated time to showing off its new 360-degree camera system during Google I/O this year.

This is a potentially huge industry—one that could rival games on VR headsets.

I heard something about Facebook…

There’s also the Facebook question. Last year Facebook bought Oculus—a move that was…well, controversial to say the least. For now it seems like Facebook’s been an ideal partner, providing money and support without tampering with Oculus’s hardware or software.

However, there’s always the possibility something will happen down the line—Mark Zuckerberg’s made it clear he thinks the Rift and virtual reality have huge potential in terms of social connectivity. And he’s not wrong. Anyone who’s read Neuromancer knows there’s potentially something interesting to be garnered from people “living” in virtual spaces.

But that’s for future generations of VR. For now, Facebook seems content to let the Rift be the multimedia device it was originally planned to be.

Be prepared

Okay, so maybe (hopefully) you’ve read all this and you’re like, “Wow this virtual reality thing sounds really cool and I’d like to get in on this. Or at least try it.”

Continue to the final page for information about technical requirements and expected pricing for virtual reality headsets and the gear needed to run them.

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