With just a headset and whatever you need to power it – namely either a smartphone, PC, or games console – you’ll most likely be blown away by the full range of VR experiences on offer. But the next step into much deeper explorations of VR will need some form of accessory.
We’re still in the infancy days of the technology and there’s much more to come, but already there are some firms focusing on developing the accessories that will make our virtual reality experiences even more real.
We’ve seen that to fully enjoy VR we need to engage as many of the human senses as possible. Sight and the visual aspects are well catered for. After all, delivery of images to our eyes is exactly what the VR headsets offer.
But what about the rest? How do we bring in sound, touch, and movement? The ability to feel and move an object, to hear everything that should be heard, to get the real sense of motion that only actual movement of the body can deliver?
To understand more we need to look at our subject from a couple of perspectives – which problems do accessories solve or which enhancements they deliver, and what the different types of accessories are. These two perspectives are precisely what many accessories will target. Some are already available to buy, some are still in the ideas/development stage.
These are the four main areas we need to consider:
By taking a look at these four areas in turn we’ll build up a good picture of the types of accessories that will help us get an improved VR experience, and we’ll find some of the specific models that complete the puzzle.
Gesture control refers of course to the ability to interact with and shape virtual reality environments with hand movements.
Leap Motion are the leaders in the field, having already developed a tracker that can be attached to headsets to give a rough form of hand tracking. They’ve taken it significantly further with the Orion module, which is a combined software and hardware solution specially designed for VR headsets.
Sensors can be embedded in the headsets, but the real gem in the Leap Motion Orion is in the software. It’s reportedly clever stuff that effectively enables precise tracking of hand movements, allowing you to move objects in virtual environments more naturally than with a hand-held controller.
If the firm is successful in bringing the solution to fruition, we may see it in a number of future headset devices. As such, it’s not exactly classified as an accessory but more something of an add-on enhancement which will be worth looking out for in future headset models.
Using a hand controller to explore environments is all well and good, but to move it up a gear is going to need the ability for full body movement. There are a number of devices under development which aim to fill this gap:
Virtuix Omni VR Treadmill
First seen at the CES show of 2016, the Omni VR treadmill looks likely to be one of the forerunners of a whole host of multi-directional walking/running devices. Not just intended for individual home gaming use, but potentially in esports contests within VR environments and games too. It’s highly likely that treadmills will be seen widely in arcades in future.
It’s not surprising that Virtuix reportedly sold over 5000 units even before it had been seen in public demonstrations, and had gained significant investor interest.
Specially designed slippery soled shoes are the order of the day, which have tracking sensors attached on top. When the soles make contact with the plastic Omni surface, the two combine to give the movement solution. USB or Bluetooth connectivity drive the interaction between the smartphone or desktop PC and the headset.
Step into the central harness, secure with the belt and straps, put on your VR headset, and you’re ready to go explore.
With practice you’ll learn the best way for the device to work with your own way of moving, and how to get it to respond to movements you make with your body.
Feedback occurs between how slow or fast your moving on the treadmill, and what’s actually happening in the VR game enjoyed in the headset. Make your strides longer, and the device interprets this as running. Even walking backwards is possible.
With game development possibly limited for the next year or so, the Omni would work well with tourism type VR experiences although it may be a hefty price to pay just to get that immersion level only for sightseeing. Another area where its strengths could come to the fore is in fitness actvities.
Either way, this movement solution looks as if it delivers a truly enjoyable experience.
You’ll get your own chance to try it out for around $700, a price which includes the treadmill itself, one pair of shoes, the harness, a set of tracking pods, and a year’s warranty.
Bundled with this is the shooter game TRAVR and a few other VR experience demos.
Offering a rather clever solution, with the Rovr you’ll be wearing special shoes which have a slippery studded sole. You’ll stand on a slightly concaved dish, and slide the shoes across the ice-like surface to move within the VR environment.
Sounds like hard work, doesn’t it? A bit like skating. But reports suggest it’s actually fun and not particularly taxing.
With this slipperiness not exactly lending itself to serious running movements – at least while holding something like a virtual weapon – it looks like movements will be limited to the more exploratory types and holding on to the handrail will be essential. Perhaps it’s the VR experiences that allow you to visit special destinations that will give the greatest benefits.
The device works with the Oculus Rift, but developments are under way to add the capability to use it via Bluetooth with headsets like the Samsung Gear VR. And it’s compact enough to use in pretty much any reasonably sized room.
On the pricing front it’s expensive at roughly $580 or £400, though not totally unaffordable for anyone who’s already laid out a fair sum on the other critical elements of the VR puzzle.
VirZOOM VZ Controller
Another accessory offering a movement type solution is the VirZoom, a bicycle oriented answer to how to move around in VR environments. Just as this suggests, you achieve this all by pedal power. And it’s designed to work with all types of headsets.
The VirZoom is very similar to one of those folding exercise bikes you’ll have seen on fitness videos or in the local gym, with the idea being you’ll pay either a subscription or one off fee which gets you access to specially created content designed to let you ride the bike within various VR worlds.
As such, its focus is not really gaming as you might expect, but more fitness related. Although games are offered in the range of content. To give a good workout there are eight different resistance settings which you’ll choose depending on the fitness level you’re at or want to achieve.
As more options for riding in VR appear it sounds like the device could become a very real nice to have, with the developers talking about plans for competitions, leagues, and tournaments.
I want one!!
One of the areas where the desktop PC headsets have an advantage over their less powerful smartphone powered models is in their range of capabilities. Something that’s most noticeable in the motion tracking arena.
Smartphone headsets are able to track head movements of a user, but not full body movements. For the Gear, there’s now an answer. And it’s delivered by a firm known as Indotrack.
They’ve developed a system which combines the headset with a set of sensors to deliver a wireless tracking solution. This allows for tracking of body movements while immersed in the VR experience.
VicoVR Body Motion Tracking
Potentially a low cost full motion tracking solution, VicoVR is a tracking camera that was announced at the 2016 CES. It’s being designed to work with the less expensive smartphone powered headsets.
The VicoVR works by building up a skeletal image of the target subject at 30 frames per second, and projects that image into the virtual reality experience you’re engaged in. With a range of up to 5 metres, this means you could place the tracker device in a variety of positions and still get the immersion needed.
It can also track two participants at the same time, allowing for interaction of both within the same environment.
There’s some work to reduce lag, with some delays in seeing the movement you made actually translated into whatever you’re doing in the VR world.
Overall the experience of the Vico is similar to that of a Kinect, and it may well end up being one which the whole family can enjoy in the same vein.
Pricing is likely to be at around the $270 mark once the device hits the retail market, but because it works on its own power you won’t need to be forking out for anything else other than a smartphone and VR headset.
ICAROS Flight Simulator
Machines that aid in reproducing the feeling of flight are sure to be popular. One of the first to be developed comes from ICAROS GmbH, a company based in Germany that are cleverly presenting their solution as a combined flight simulator/fitness trainer.
Designed to be used with a Samsung Gear VR headset, ICAROS will become publicly available in April 2016 priced at €7,500, or about $8,400. Although not really intended for home use – early customers are expected to be gyms, hotels, demonstration and marketing events – if you have the space in your home there may well be a future home version.
Pressure Sensing Mats
The range of accessories has tended to focus on what we can do with our hands, how body motion is tracked, and the directional input of head or eye movements. That leaves the part of our bodies furthest away from the brain – our feet. There are devices under development that can track feet movement to enhance virtual experiences, the first of which comes from a company by the name of Tactonic Technologies.
Tactonic’s solution works by collecting pressure-imaging data from the ways that a user’s feet are moving. This data is streamed in real time via USB or wireless to a PC, where the software interprets the signals and transforms it in a way that allows it to track and react to the activity a headset wearer is engaged in.
The first model is sized at 24 by 18 inches, with a target initial availability date in the second quarter of 2016. If early versions are successful, we may see the first consumer release towards the end of 2016 at a price in the region of $200.
Early thoughts are that the mats can make a useful add-on to the overall virtual reality experience, perhaps even being connected together to form larger pressure sensing areas.
It’s not hard to see the value of movement enabling devices such as omni-directional treadmills, but there’s an alternative option for more sedentary type movement which lets you turn 360 degrees to meet the visual needs of a VR experience. It is of course a chair which will swivel in all directions.
The chair in question is the Praevidis Turris which is reportedly the first revolving chair which can be used in conjunction with virtual reality headsets. The Turris has a number of design elements that will enhance VR experiences.
It has inbuilt motion sensors and powerful PC that can handle the needs of the higher end headsets such as the Vive and Rift. Cable connections are made at the rear of the unit which should keep any trailing cables away from the potential of entanglement.
It seems to be easy to control, with simple forward, backward, left, and right movements made by the seated user leaning in the appropriate direction.
It’s not cheap with a price of around $3000, but could be the first of many similar types that will see prices drop gradually.
So we’ve covered motion and body movement, the next element to tackle is actually feeling what’s happening around you, and this is achieved expertly with whole body ‘haptic’ suits.
Created by a UK based firm, the Teslasuit is currently in prototype phase and offers a solution which really does let you feel the virtual environment around you.
The skin hugging suit works on the principle of Electro Muscular Stimulation, using a series of over 50 sensors inside the material which lets the wearer feel something from as subtle as gentle breezes, temperature changes, or a light human touch, through to much more forceful impacts akin to bullets.
Made up of different modules – gloves, a belt, and the suit itself – it’s powered by a high end processor and battery.
Early reports suggest a potential price of around $1500, which may look cheap when you take into account the immersion improvements it offers.
NullSpace VR BodySuit
The Nullspace suit was born out of a collaboration between three students at a NY university. Each section contains a motor, with accelerometers in the arms. The sections react to any movement – such as an object striking the body in virtual reality – while the accelerometers position the arms inside the virtual environment.
When hooked up to a VR headset via a PC, the in built motion tracking acts to turn the suit into a fully fledged way to feel exactly what’s happening inside the VR environment.
The prototype already exists, though further funding will be needed to bring the suit to the consumer market.
Haptic Touch Gloves
At much lower cost that full scale body suits, there are some glove solutions that deliver some of the touch and feel enhancements you’ll need for great immersive experiences.
Essentially intended to take the place of standard hand-held controllers, these gloves offer a more natural way of performing virtual interactions and actually controlling environments.
One of the early developers are Palm Labs, who are aiming to end up with a solution that can track finger movements down to one tenth of a millimetre. Google and other major firms either have patents pending or previously filed for their own versions.
The most complex gloves – known as haptic gloves – contain a whole array of technical wizardry including cameras, a compass, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and motion detectors in the finger tips.
Manus VR Gloves
Hand movement is one of the critical elements for getting the highest level of immersion. Sure you’ll see a representation of hands in some games and experiences, but they’re not really yours. So it’s unsurprising that developments of haptic gloves are going to attract some intense attention.
One of the early consumer solutions for this are the Manus VR gloves. They’ll allow you to use hand movements – grabbing, pointing, selecting, picking up objects – inside virtual reality environments, and with a high degree of responsiveness.
Once you’re kitted out with a headset and the gloves, your hands appear inside the experience as if they were there, surrounded by a blue edge. Any movement is quickly replicated inside the headset view, allowing intuitive movements in an entirely natural way.
In development stage as of Q1 2016, the Manus VR Gloves are expected to be available to buy in Q3 for around $250.
One of the key senses to engage to make virtual reality feel even more real, great sound quality is hugely important. Perhaps even making up 50% or more of the overall experience. For an example, where do you look in real life when everything is going on around you? Our attentions are often drawn to sounds of course.
Most VR headsets do have built in sound capability, though it’s not always of the highest quality. Well known headsets such as the Gear do offer good quality, being based on audio systems developed by Fraunhofer who are one of the leaders in the field. You may need something a little more high end to enhance sound quality even further:
Samsung Entrim 4D Headphones
Clearly intended to be used in conjunction with a Gear VR headset, these ultra smart looking headphones are designed to increase the immersion levels to new heights.
The headphones use electric impulses to give the wearer a sense of moving while inside a virtual reality experience. When you’re flying for example, you’ll feel the movement. The wind whistling past.
The technical term for how this works is known as Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation, which relates to the transfer of electronic signals direct to the nerves inside your ear. And we all know that the ear plays a major part in balance right?
Once you solve that element of balance, it may also alleviate any nausea that might come from rapid movements where your eyes are telling you you’re moving, but the body (or the vestibular system of the body to be precise) knows it’s not.
If they get to market they’re clearly not going to be cheap, but in the headphones championship table the Entrim model looks well placed to take one of the top positions.
Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones
Coming in at a hefty £1100, these high end Sennheiser HD 800 headphones are pretty much guaranteed to hit the sweet spot. Cleverly designed to send sounds into your ears at the angle you’d get from external speakers.
OSSIC X Headphones
Billed as the first 3D audio headphone, the Ossic X works by delivering sound that’s specifically calibrated to your own hearing capabilities, head, and ear shapes.
The result is an ultra realistic sound experience, delivered by combining audio algorithms with head-tracking functionality, and optimised precisely for the best way for sounds to be interpreted for your own hearing.
Don’t expect these to be cheap when they’re released for consumer sale. Price is expected to be around $300. Read more on the official website.