Virtual reality still feels a bit too virtual, and Sixense aims to change that. Its new Stem System does away with the traditional controller in place of a tracking system that follows up to five body parts or peripherals using sensors that can be swapped between them. Sixense will begin shipping the system this July along with a controller built specifically for the new system, which we were given a chance to try out this morning.
The controllers let you stretch your arms and even toss objects
The Stem Controllers work in pairs — there's one for each hand, which allows the system to track each of your arms independently. It's a system that works well: while playing Portal 2, the controllers lets you stretch out your arms, twirl them around, and even toss objects.
The controllers don't stray far from their gaming roots, though. While both are strangely shaped handles that wrap around all the way around your hand, they still rely on normal gaming conventions — from a joystick to a trigger to A, B, X, and Y buttons — to help you perform major functions. Some of these things are inescapable, especially in a world of games that haven't been custom built for VR, but joysticks are the sign that a solution isn't the perfect one yet — something even Sixense admits.
As with other VR controllers, you'll still have to use the joysticks when you want to turn your body or move forward, instead of being allowed to spin your physical body and have it translated onscreen. That's no fault of Sixense though, as it's the Oculus Rift that's tethered into place and preventing you from spinning. For gamers though, it's another distraction keeping you from fully buying into the VR world.
The Stem Controllers are fun to play with nonetheless, and they're certainly far better than using a traditional controller with a VR headset. Sixense promises that "virtually any" game should work with its controllers, though games that have been customized to work with it will play 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.
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. Naturally, it's no competition for professional modeling software, but it isn't meant to be. MakeVR effectively allows users to play around with a large series of prebuilt shapes and put them together into something that can ultimately be 3D printed — think Minecraft, but for actual modeling. 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.
Like the Stem System, MakeVR will head through Kickstarter before it launches, though Sixense is open about the fact that it's solely a matter of getting consumer feedback — the program will get made whether it's successful or not. The Stem System wrapped up its successful Kickstarter last October and will begin shipping to backers in July. From there, there's an even broader future for Sixense's motion trackers: accessory makers will be able to put them into fake swords or guns or make straps for them to be attached elsewhere on gamers' bodies. No controller for virtual reality is perfect yet, but playing in VR is quickly becoming a more and more complete experience.