Virtual Reality headsets are all well and good but currently only offer you only a very limited interaction with the virtual world that you are immersed in. You want to reach out and touch, feel and sense your virtual surroundings but can’t at the moment other than via a mouse and keyboard or games console controller which quickly dissipates your sense of presence. Sixense, the inventors of the Razer Hydra controller have a new wireless modular motion-tracking system which aims to change that.
The Sixense STEM System is a motion tracking system that follows up to five body parts or peripherals using sensors that can be swapped between them. Of these 5 sensors, 2 are wireless controllers built specifically for the new system, which have motion tracking sensors built directly into them.
The Stem Controllers work in pairs, one for each hand, which allows the system to track each of your arms independently, letting you stretch out your arms, twirl them around, and even toss objects such as salad. It seems very akin to a cross between a Wii-mote and a pair of garbage collection pinching tools.
The controllers are, in our opinion, a limitation of this system. Whilst they are an improvement over a traditional controller, they still don’t let you ‘feel’ things directly. It’s like being able to prod things in the virtual world with a virtual stick when what we really want is to caress the tasty derrière of the woman in the red dress which is what PEAs are all about.
The STEM controllers are really a MacGuffin though. The real power of Sixense’s system lies in the STEM pack modules. These are the sensors which track your position with surprising accuracy, much like a considerably more expensive professional motion capture setup. Attaching one to your VR headset allows you not only to look around (which VR headsets already do) but also to lean left and right and tilt your head to peer around corners in the virtual world or look at the underside of a table for instance. This adds considerably to the feeling of presence and interaction.
Attaching STEM packs to your ankles and midriff, combined with the two controllers, gives the complete 5 pack setup, allowing for full body Kinect-like motion capture. You can even walk/run around although you’ll have to be careful to not run into a brick wall.
The Stem Controllers look fun to play with and certainly far better than using a traditional controller with a VR headset. Sixense promises that virtually all games will work with its controllers, though games that have been specifically configured to make use of it will naturally work best. Among those will be new downloadable content for Portal 2: a pack of 14 levels made by Sixense with Valve’s blessing that includes puzzles built specifically for the Stem Controllers [hell yes!].
Sixense are also launching an SDK for developers to facilitate integration of the controllers into their games:
Gaming isn’t the only task that Sixense has in mind for its controllers though. It’s also planning to launch 3D-modeling software called MakeVR that’s been built specifically around its controllers. MakeVR allows users to play around with a large series of prebuilt shapes and put them together into something that can ultimately be printed in 3D. Think Minecraft, but for actual modelling. It’s meant to be fun to use, and Sixense says that even kids have been able to quickly pick up the program and to start building robots and customizing iPhone cases.
We here are VR Gaming aren’t entirely sold on the STEM system. Whilst it looks like a neat interaction tool and is certainly an improvement over other traditional input methods, it’s still a far cry from the Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. I believe that optical tracking is the way forward and given that the Oculus Rift DK2 is shipping with a motion tracking camera and Sony’s Morpheus relies on similar tech, I’m inclined to say to that the big players agree. There is also the cost consideration: the STEM system is not cheap. However, Sixense had a very successful Kickstarter campaign last October and were set to begin shipping to backers in July. This has since been pushed back by 3 months to improve the accuracy of the sensors and integrating 2 of the STEM modules directly into the controllers (previously they were detachable). No controller for virtual reality is perfect yet, but playing in VR is quickly becoming a more and more complete experience. Irrespective of any limitations, we look forward to testing out the STEM system in the near future and will endeavour to bring you further insight as we do.