Why VR's new hand controllers will bring back the wow factor

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Hand-tracking devices are bringing a whole new level of interactivity to virtual reality, writes the global VR technical director of Framestore.

Virtual reality’s inexorable march continues unabated because, thanks to tracked hand controllers, the medium just got a whole lot more interactive.

VR has always been interactive because the viewer can control where they are within the experience. But, until now, our hands haven’t been involved and—as babies show us—reaching out to grab something interesting is the most natural reaction in the world. So it was pretty much inevitable that the next phase of VR evolution would see the technology integrate our hands.

The HTC Vive, with its two wireless hand controllers, got there first. But HTC is not alone in incorporating hands movements. The Google Daydream VR headset recently launched with a controller (something that came in handy when we needed to create an interactive wand for the "Fantastic Beasts" VR experiences) and Oculus launched its Touch half-moon controllers which, with their ability to recognise human gestures like pointing, are arguably the smartest of the bunch.

Every major player in VR is putting interaction at the core of their offerings. And it makes total sense because interaction intensifies that all-important "sense of presence"—the Holy Grail for any VR experience. By involving a user’s hands in an experience, a lot more of the brain’s neurons are included in the simulation. This consequently increases the resulting sense of presence; which is after all VR’s unique selling point and always the ultimate goal.

And hand interactivity is just the beginning. At last week’s CES, we got a tantalizing taste of the future when HTC unveiled another first, the ‘Vive Tracker’. It’s a portable and reusable tracking system that can be stuck to any relevant item—perhaps something like a racket for a tennis-themed experience—so that the item can be incorporated into the VR environment. By adding a Vive Tracker to a user’s feet, for example, they could start kicking a football around in VR. So the scope for interactivity will soon stretch far beyond hands to open up an even bigger world of possibilities.

But what does all this mean for VR marketing campaigns? VR is already on its way to mainstream adoption and probably topped many people’s Christmas lists last year. (I, for one, had a running list for my New Year VR gathering). Meanwhile, 360-degree video has become so commonplace that it now needs a standout idea to deliver the wow factor it once automatically had.

So gone are the days when VR’s novelty alone would be enough to seduce someone into spending their precious time inside an experience. In short, VR is already hungry for its "next big thing." Which is why the time is ripe for the interactivity that’s brought about by hand-controller generated touch.

Hand controllers are a powerful new tool and their dramatic impact on sense of presence will thrust the VR bar high. It’s going to be hard to go back to previous forms of VR and this means VR marketing campaigns need to think even bigger than before.

Touch is a seminal moment in VR’s evolution. The nascent VR industry hasn’t yet experienced a step change quite like it. And it’s a paradigm shift not just for end-user experiences, but also for the people who craft them.

As with all forms of VR, storytellers have to give up control of the camera because users are free to look wherever they choose. But the increased interactivity brought about by touch means the narrative turns into something even more open-ended. It becomes harder to keep a user on track with the brand’s preferred narrative. So marketers will also have to get used to relinquishing control of linear narrative if interactive VR’s true potential is to be unleashed.

With hand controllers coming onto the market and signalling the beginning of true interaction, anyone involved in creating VR campaigns will have to rewrite the rules by focusing on experiences in a more holistic way. This means prioritising how an experience should feel over following a strict storyboard; and focusing on what we want to show rather than tell. It’s a big shift in mindset for marketing departments.

For VR creators operating in this new VR world, we will have to learn to cast the net wide for inspiration. The games industry, for example, can teach us a thing or two because they’ve been experimenting with this type of interactive narrative for quite some time already. But there’s a lot to be learned from other arenas too, like theatres and museums; anywhere that tells narratives through environment or space.

Sounds like a lot of work for both marketer and content creator, doesn’t it? So will it be worth it? Definitely! Although VR is a young medium, its wow factor is already waning. But touch-led interactivity will reintroduce that all-important wow factor in spades.

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