Motion controls became a must-have feature in high-end virtual reality at least a year ago, but they’ve been slower to come to mobile VR, because it’s tough to create a robust tracking system without external cameras or markers. But Google did it with Daydream last year, and now Samsung and Oculus are doing the same with the Gear VR, which will soon be getting its very own motion controller. While we’ve seen a non-functioning Gear VR controller before, we got to try it out for the first time last week — and although it’s not pretty, it seems to get the job done.
Samsung and Oculus’ new controller will launch on April 21st, when it’ll be bundled with the Gear VR for a total of $129. (If you already have a Gear VR, you can buy it separately for $39.) Oculus says that 20 titles will support the controller at launch, including zombie shooter Drop Dead and puzzle game Rangi, with 50 more coming in the next few months.
The controller’s design is similar to that of Google’s Daydream controller: a wand with internal tracking sensors that let you use it like a laser pointer inside VR, with a trackpad at one end and a few menu and volume buttons. The biggest functional difference is a trigger at one end, which Google tested in Daydream controller prototypes but didn’t include in the final hardware. Like the Oculus Rift’s Touch controllers, it also uses disposable batteries instead of charging via USB-C like the Daydream controller. I’ve had problems with forgetting to charge my Daydream controller, so this could turn out to be more convenient in the long run, especially if the batteries last a while.
If you’re not a fan of the Gear VR’s clunky aesthetic, you’re probably going to like its controller even less. It’s made of cheap-feeling black plastic and shaped like a bent serving spoon, with a big plastic button serving as a trackpad. The Daydream controller also felt cheap, but it was small and unobtrusive enough to get away with it. It could also be clipped invisibly inside the headset between uses, while the Gear VR controller fits on a side strap.
Compared to Daydream, the trigger lets the Gear VR work a little bit more like an Oculus Touch or other high-end motion controller, since it’s easier to do things like shoot a virtual gun with it. The trigger feels solid and clicky, and I didn’t pull it by accident — a concern Google had with its prototype — during my short time with the device. Oculus seems to be working hard to translate Touch experiences into Gear VR interactions. The avatar system gives you one virtual hand to wave around in VR, and you can press down buttons to make a couple of different gestures with it. There’s also a new, Gear VR-focused installment of the Touch launch title Dead & Buried, in which players face off against each other in a quickdraw duel.
Without spending more time using the controller, it’s difficult to tell how well a lot of these games will work. Some seem fine, but others may be over-ambitious, because the current Gear VR controller isn’t ever going to be as good as Touch. Capturing the flick of a fishing pole or the wave of a wand would be well within its capabilities, but its internal sensors approximate larger movements with less accuracy. So when Dead & Buried asks you to reach for a pistol on your belt and fire at another player, you have to awkwardly tilt the controller toward your waist and flick it up, instead of lowering your hand and grabbing the way you would on Touch. It’s an interesting technical experiment, but not much fun.
For more restrained experiences, though, it’s great to have something in between a full controller and an integrated headset trackpad. It works just fine with the Gear VR’s library interface, web browser, and virtual keyboard, where it’s a responsive and precise pointing tool. A puzzle game called Rangi feels a lot like Gear VR launch game Land’s End — but the controller makes it a lot more convenient to play, because you’re not holding your hand to your temple. Oculus says that some games, including Minecraft, are still too complex for anything but a gamepad like the Xbox One controller. But other gamepad-based titles could make the leap.
It’s frustrating that the Gear VR is now so much more expensive than the Daydream View, when both offer very similar capabilities. But even with the price bump, the controller is a very necessary addition. In the same way Oculus Touch completed the Rift system, this new controller makes the Gear VR a lot better — even if I still have some reservations about it.