The Oculus Rift, Facebook’s cord-free VR headset that starts at just $400, is getting a couple of new features over the next year. I had the opportunity to check out what might be the coolest one: hand tracking.
Mark Zuckerberg surprised the assorted developers and journalists during the Oculus Connect 6 Day One Keynote when he announced new updates to its standalone VR headset, the Oculus Quest. The first update will allow you to tether the Quest to a PC and use it as you would it PC-focused sibling, the identically priced Rift S. But the cooler update is hand tracking, which is slated to be released in 2020.
Hand tracking typically requires lots of cameras and or motion sensors and it can be clunky or affect the performance on slower devices. Oculus and Facebook haven’t given all the details of how it works on the Quest but we know it uses the 4 cameras on the Oculus Quest to take your hands without any additional hardware.
Facebook only had two demos available, and unfortunately, they wouldn’t allow me to capture footage of what I was seeing inside the demo so you’ll have to use your imagination. The first demo had me working to track down water leaks in a home, while the second cast me as a witch’s apprentice. In both I could move around and interact with the environment using my hands.
Surprisingly there was no messy calibration required so my hands could be tracked inside the demos. I simply slipped on the Quest and looked down and there were all ten fingers moving in the virtual world in what appeared to be the exact same way they felt like they were moving in the real one. There wasn’t any lag or hiccups either. It ran much smoother than expected (or than VR demos typically do).
Hand tracking might feel like the holy grail, but as Facebook noted in its two-hour keynote yesterday, it’s not just the hands that need to be tracked in a virtual world if we want it to feel appropriately immersive. Every other inch of your body will need to be tracked. You’ll need to be able to look down and see your feet, or look behind you and see your butt. Otherwise, you’ll be a terrifying avatar from the virtual playground, Horizons, Facebook showed off yesterday.
Facebook teased technology that could one day do that (about one hour and 48 minutes into the keynote), but it’s unlikely that it will happen on the Quest, which uses an already aging Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. It’s incredible what the Quest can do, but there will likely be limitations the older it gets.
The Quest launched earlier this year for $400 and in yesterday’s keynote, Facebook claimed it nearly 20-percent of the sales in the Oculus store were due to it. It’s reasonably successful, and the addition of PC tethering this year and hand tracking next year could future proof it to the point that people won’t mind its limitations.
You can’t see the real world using a passthrough mode with the Quest though. That’s a Rift S only ability. The Rift S relies on a PC too, which can be upgraded by the user. Eventually, the Quest’s processor and storage limitations (there’s only a 64GB and 128GB option) will mean it will need replacing.
Still, the Rift S won’t get hand tracking and it has a lower resolution display than the Quest. So if you’re looking to taste the future of VR this year or next, the Quest might not be a bad choice. Merely slipping a headset over your eyes and then immediately having even a small part of your body transported into a virtual world is a magical enough experience it’d be hard not to want to try it out.