Google’s virtual reality team has said that they want the Daydream controller, a little remote with an internal motion sensor and a trackpad, to be the “mouse of VR” — a standardized control system that people intuitively comprehend the moment they pick it up. But unlike your average mouse, the Daydream controller still only works with a small subset of devices: new Android phones that support the Daydream standard. iOS users, in particular, are being left in the cold. That’s why mobile headset maker Merge VR is working on its own, more universal take on the controller.
The Merge VR remote is still in an early state; we saw a 3D-printed prototype at the VR Developers Conference in San Francisco. But its creators say they’ve been working on it in some form for a year and a half. The version we saw has a lot more buttons than the Daydream remote — two arrows, two face buttons, one analog stick, two bottom triggers, and a little home button on the end, to be precise. The latest design supposedly gets rid of most of these, bringing it to rough parity with Daydream. It can be paired with the Merge VR headset, seen above, but it can also be used with any other third-party headset or even non-VR device, as long it’s supported by a given game or app. Think of it as a third-party Bluetooth gamepad with an unusual design.
As with Daydream, you mainly use the Merge controller by pointing. In one Halloween-themed demo, it’s a combination laser gun and fishing rod; you break apart tombstones by pulling the gun trigger, then “hook” the ghosts that come out and pull them into a holding container. In a second, it’s a stick used to shape clay on a pottery wheel, and in a third, it controls the movements of a small spaceship.
The current design is still a 3D-printed prototype
It’s difficult to judge how well Merge VR’s product stacks up against Daydream without having spent more time using both. It’s highly responsive, but since it doesn’t have true spatial tracking, just a directional sensor, it requires some awkward wrist-twisting in order to turn it in the correct direction. Daydream’s hardware is similarly limited, but its software models natural arm movement in a way that Merge VR doesn’t seem to right now.
Since Daydream isn’t a single device, but a larger standard, it’s plausible that other mobile headset makers will just make their own versions of Google’s controller, rather than adopting Merge VR’s design. But Merge VR is useful for any company that doesn’t want to hew to Google’s specifications, including anyone that want to build headsets or experiences for iOS users. Google Cardboard serves this segment for now, but it’s starting to look more and more primitive compared to other options. Until Apple shows off a VR solution — if it ever does — the market is wide open for products like this.