I finally know what it's like to use a lightsaber, kind of. Not a replica, with the plastic light-up blade and little speaker. I know what it feels like to grab a hilt and see it extend, then parry volley after volley of blasts from a training remote, sending them shooting across the room. Or to drag it downward and watch it burn tracks into the floor. I also know what it's like to spin around a Las Vegas hotel room, flailing my arms while holding two small black plastic barbells and worrying that I might hit someone with a nonexistent blade. The fact that these two things are so compatible speaks well of Sixense, the company behind the motion controllers I'm using.
The Sixense STEM (Sixense Tracking Embedded Module) is a motion tracker built around a central "base station." The station emits an electromagnetic field with an 8-foot radius, which detects the position of handheld controllers and a small box that you can strap to a VR headset. Unlike a camera-based motion tracker like the Leap Motion, it's not detecting individual features of your body, which means you won't get fine-grained finger controls. But you also don't need a straight line of sight — as long as the base station can detect the controllers, it can get a precise position, and you can even walk around by putting a pack on your headset. Camera-based tools have improved greatly, but they'll still sometimes lose track of your hands, making you cautious about moving too quickly.
It's a step towards not having to fight the interface of a VR world
I managed to accidentally stretch my arm out of shape once during the demo. But the rest of the time, I never worried about the computer not picking up my gestures. If I used a Gear VR, which the STEM supports, I didn't even have to worry about stepping on wires — although because of limitations on its Bluetooth support, I could only use one lightsaber instead of the two I got with the Oculus Rift. The demo, in short, is exactly as much fun as it seemed when I first heard of it last summer. A virtual shooting gallery felt a little less spectacular, but it worked just as well.
Sixense produced the older Razer Hydra motion controller, and it's best known as a gaming company. But it's also testing virtual storefronts: spaces where users can go to examine shoes or toys or electronics close up. Virtual stores are a popular but underdeveloped concept, and we're not sure how close Sixense might be to actually putting one in place; the company says it's talking to Target and other retailers about the idea. For now, it's produced a shoe-shopping demo that meshes sort of hilariously with its general hardcore-gamer aesthetic: you're a metal robot browsing a rack of delicate high-heeled shoes, which you can pick up to examine closer or fling (literally) onto a mannequin. It's not a radical departure from ideas we've seen before, but it manages to diminish the feeling of fighting the interface, while actually giving you meaningful control.
Sixense doesn't generally produce products directly, although the STEM is being sold as a somewhat ungainly $380 development kit. Instead, it licenses its tools to companies like Razer or, perhaps, Samsung. CEO Amir Rubin imagines it as a complement to mobile VR: instead of picking through tiny pictures on a mobile app, you could open up a VR shopping app. Would anybody actually carry around a base station and controllers instead of just waiting to use a computer, though? The hope is that it could get smaller in the future, but it'd have to get a lot smaller, just like the clunky Gear VR. And we're not sure how ready most people are to set down a base station before using their mobile phone, even if the phone is in a headset.
As a virtual reality device, though, it's refreshing to see something so intuitive and — in a show full of "immersive films" and basic demos — interactive. Licensing issues would probably sink a real, commercial game about lightsaber fighting, and it's hard to justify a nearly $400 purchase for a handful of use cases. Is it the future of VR interaction? Who knows. But just coming up with one idea as good as the lightsaber demo is worth our praise here.