I’m standing in a grey environment, ground below and dark sky on the horizon. Across from me is Moustafa Sharawy – only he isn’t really there. Instead, I see a disembodied holographic head, wearing an Oculus Rift, and a pair of hands. Moustafa waves hello and begins to speak to me. As he does the area around his mouth becomes distorted, like a sound wave, showing that he is speaking with me. He waves and says hello and I feel that familiar rush that only comes with Presence. A giant smile spread across my face and I couldn’t help but let out a joyous laugh.
And this was all before the attendant in the room handed me the Touch controllers.
I saw what would become my hands out in front of me. As the attendant worked to hand me the controllers I reached out and fumbled with them, struggling a little to get them on my hands from within the Rift. In the moment I was reminded of my first experience with the Vive, where I had reached out into virtual space and instantly was able to find the physical controller. This wasn’t quite the same case with the Touch controllers but this was also likely due to the fact that they are shaped much differently than the ghostly hands I saw in the virtual space in front of me. Despite this, I was eventually able to get my hands around the controllers. And then all the magic happened.
As a brief aside here, I would like to point out that Oculus was running this all on the Crescent Bay setup – using two positional tracking cameras pointed at me on the same side of the wall. I made sure to ask if there was any difference between these cameras and the one for the CV1 and it turns out that they are essentially one and same – minus the aesthetic changes. Also – the controls do lose tracking when they are occluded from the camera’s vision. Moustafa did say something about there potentially being some ways around that – but he wouldn’t elaborate further.
Moustafa and I began to chat a bit as he walked me through the controls. The finger sensor was very basic at this point, detecting only the index finger and thumb, which was a shame because the first thing I wanted to try to do was flick someone off – something I learned I couldn’t do. But oh well, I was able to make a thumbs up, point, and make a finger gun. Moustafa, determined to be my friendly Lyft driver through this magical experience reached out and said, “before we do anything else… squeeze the trigger and fist bump me,” I smiled and complied – even without the haptic feedback of the collision it was a moment that helped to solidify me in a state of Presence – a state that I would rarely, if at all, leave for the next fifteen minutes.
Moustafa started fiddling with some buttons on his controllers and in his hand I was able to see some mini screens – each one a different world that we would explore together. The first one he loaded up brought a table in between us which held a number of different toys and blocks to play with. I reached out and grabbed the first thing I saw, a toy truck, and almost subconsciously, my childlike wonder in the environment took over and I found myself running the car along the table, all the while making goofy motor noises with my mouth. I saw Moustafa’s avatar react as he laughed at me – apparently enjoying watching me in the demo as much as I was enjoying the demo itself.
“Try pushing the car along the table,” he said. I did and found that by changing the amount of force I applied I was able to move the car along the table faster or slower – just like I would if it were a real object. I could feel my cheeks beginning to hurt from how big my smile was getting.
“Now try knocking those blocks over.” I reached out, clinched my hand into a fist and punched the blocks hard, sending them flying all over the place – including one that flew right into Moustafa’s face bouncing off in utterly satisfying fashion – we both laughed again.
He then directed my attention to the tetherball hanging to my left. I reached out, gave it a smack and sent it spinning back over to his side. He smacked it back and for the next minute or so we engaged in a game of virtual tetherball, complete with headers (yes, the ball would bounce against the headset – sadly no haptics there). We even played a game of virtual ping pong, with balls I could drop, bound on the table, and pick up, and a paddle I could use to hit them or even smack smack things off the table with. After laughing playfully at my lack of coordination as I attempted to play virtual ping pong, Moustafa grabbed a black orb next to him and held it out in front of me. “Punch this,” he said.
I did and the world around me exploded into white before zapping us into space. As I began to get settled into my new surroundings I noticed the gravity had been turned off and the blocks were now all floating in space around me. I took this opportunity to have some fun in zero G, taping objects and watching them float into the abyss. It was good fun. “Alright, lets move on,” Moustafa said returning to the hand menu options and selecting a new environment.
This time a bridge and a number of other walls and objects appeared before me. Looking to my left I saw a collection of fireworks and a Looney Toons-esque stick of TNT. Next to them was a zippo lighter, which Moustafa asked me to hand to him.
I picked up the lighter and reached across the virtual table and he grabbed it out of my hand – pretty freaking cool. He then, with a very natural flick of the wrist, snapped the lighter open and on.
“Lets light some fireworks,” he said, the joy in his voice obviously apparent. I reached to my left and picked up a pair of sparklers, one in each hand, and touched them to the flame. Instantly they sparkled to life and I waved them around in the air as Fourth of July memories sprung to mind. We sat there for a while firing Roman Candles at each other, lighting TNT, and tossing it around the room – playing a couple games of hot potato as we tossed a lit one back and forth.
Satisfied, Moustafa directed my attention to the left. “See that controller there? Go ahead and pick it up.” In front of me was a green controller that looked similar to one of the Touch controls. I grabbed it and held it in my hand and it emitted a laser out infinitely into space. “Now look at that tank to your left, that line there is where you are aiming. If you point it at something and pull the trigger your tank will fire at that object. Try blowing up that wall over there.” I complied, pulling the trigger as the little RC tank launched a projectile across the table blowing up a section of the wall. Awesome. Moving the joystick on the actual controller (and the virtual one to boot) I was able to control the tank through the environment, similar to Sixense’s toy demo. We battled tanks for a moment before he finally landed the decisive blow, exploding my tank off the playing field.
“Alright, lets try this last one,” he said once again loading up the menu and selecting a new environment.
This time Moustafa stood to my side – a small section between us with a collection of boomerangs, laser guns, robots and sling shots. In front of us were a number of vases and various types of targets. “I know you probably want to try the guns first but I really want you to see this slingshot,” he said, handing it to me. I grabbed it in my right hand. Using my left, I grabbed the rubber and pulled back, a marble appearing loaded in it. Releasing it I fired it at the target.
But those lasers were calling my name. I picked them up and dual wielded them, blasting away at all the targets in the room. After a brief laser fight between the two of us, Moustafa pulled out another special weapon, pointed it at me and fired. Suddenly he towered above me – I had shrunk to the size of one of the toys on the table. As he spoke his voice boomed deep like a giant.
It was an awesome change in scale for sure. And led to giant Moustafa pulling the hands off the toy robot and handing them to me – oh yeah I had Hulk hands. He grabbed a plush bunny and held it in front of me like a boxing bag as I punched it. Great fun and it allowed me to see that the controls didn’t lose tracking despite fast movement.
He restored me to size as we concluded the demo with some more gunfire.
All in all, it was perhaps one of the most fun times I’ve had in VR. I can’t remember a moment where I wasn’t laughing, smiling or profusely (and profanely) expressing my happiness. I have tried to dissect what it was exactly that made it so great and I think I have figured it out. It wasn’t the 1:1 hand tracked controllers, that was definitely a part of it, as they were absolutely excellent (with incredible ergonomics – Carbon Design has really out done themselves since joining the Oculus family). But thinking about it long and hard it was the social interaction in combination with that tracking that made the Toybox so transformative. It was the most fun I have had in VR because it was a social experience. They say that VR is isolating – but this demo proves just how untrue that is.