A Soft Touch: A World of VR Gaming Without Physical Feedback

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I remember playing Mario Kart on the Wii for the first time. Flush with excitement about the potential of the new motion control technology and its application for a racing game, I eagerly plugged my controller into the plastic wheel that came bundled with it to try out its practical driving simulation. When playing the previous game in the series, I had made use of a steering wheel controller, and I looked forward to having a similar experience with the new title.

I gave it a good try, but a few races later I found myself switching back to a more traditional controller setup. The problem: without being connected to anything, the Wii wheel didn’t give feedback when I turned it left or right. It was difficult for the game to tell how far I was turning, and it was even more challenging for me to tell whether I’d turned far enough to the left or right to move my kart.

And that same issue carries over to VR: Without physical feeling to point players towards understanding what they’re touching, it’s difficult for gamers to interact comfortably with objects and environments in virtual reality. In the absence of a sense of touch, game developers are coming up with new and inventive ways of communicating everything players need to know about their game world.

Keeping the Game Connected to the Real World

Have you ever had your leg fall asleep? Maybe you sat on it for too long, and then, attempting to get up and walk, you found yourself wobbling uncontrollably. The problem with losing your sense of feeling is that you don’t know how much pressure to apply without getting feedback from the ground, and it can end up being very disconcerting.

The same issue can affect playing games in VR. Without something to physically touch, you’re unable to gauge where a wall is or where the edges are on an item you might be holding. Digital barriers don’t necessarily apply to your physical arms, which can mean trying to put your hand through a solid object in a game.

Motion control Kinect games are often built around scenarios where players aren’t required to move from a single spot. Video Source: YouTube

This has proven a challenge for a variety of motion control games, and it often takes smart level design to make sure that players aren’t getting tripped up on ethereal obstacles. Most of the Xbox Kinect games, for example, take place in an empty space and are designed around the idea of the player not actually touching anything around their character.

To make sure players can actually feel connected to the game world around them, VR developers need to be careful to use whatever form of feedback or stimulus that’s at their disposal, even if that means rethinking the way traditional game tools are used.

Players Need Feedback

Back when the Wii was in development, Nintendo made a big point of drawing attention to the built-in speaker and rumble pack within the console’s controller. This was for a very good reason – as development was taking place on a variety of Wii games, the company was discovering just how important sounds and vibrations are to helping motion control feel natural.

Swinging a sword in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or hitting a tennis ball in Wii Sports both elicit a satisfying swoosh, a crack, and a vibration. It’s a way of making interactions within the game feel solid, and it lets the player know when a volley has been struck or a pig monster has been slashed.

For games to feel immersive and natural in VR, the experience of interacting with the digital world needs to similarly have a degree of feedback to it. It’s for this reason that holding controllers makes a big difference to immersion within these games – players can understand these tools as they have a physical presence and are able to hold them as stand-ins for the items that they interact with throughout games.

The Portal tech demo for the HTC Vive uses the controller as tools within the game for added clarity (and verisimilitude). Video Source: YouTube

This is why many VR games feature players holding items that interact with the world for them – the Portal-themed tech demo recreates the HTC Vive’s controllers within the digital space so that players don’t need to think about where their hands are, but rather can focus on manipulating the tools in their hands more naturally.

Using a Full Range of Senses

In the absence of vibrations, audio and visual cues need to be used to their maximum potential to make sure that players can get the feedback they need to navigate digital spaces.

Thankfully, the level of immersion present in VR games makes this easier to achieve than it has been with other motion control game setups. One of the biggest boons to understanding a space is depth perception, achieved through VR headsets, which allow players to get a firmer grasp on the world around them.

This can be combined with smart lighting and simple, easy-to-understand object design to make game images, and the objects that they represent, stand out more to the player, making it easier to spot and interact with things.

This can be seen in games like Loading Human, which rely heavily on players picking up and handling items within the game world. Books aren’t comprised of hundreds of fiddly pages, but instead can be easily flicked through to see each large page. Making things big and easy to see ensures that interacting with items throughout the game world doesn’t become a chore, and is instead an enjoyable and forgiving experience.

Record and Phonograph in Virtual Reality game

Items throughout Loading Human are big and easy to manipulate, to avoid becoming uncomfortable for the player to use.

There’s also something to be said for the smart application of sound – where physical touch can’t be experienced, it helps when players can hear objects making noise as the player touches them. Audible, realistic noises help to ground the world, and different types of sound help the player to know the relative rigidity of what they’re interacting with – metal objects should make loud clangs when the player knocks them, while quieter noises should come from softer items when the player picks them up and casually tosses them around.

Forgiving Objects

Finally, a VR game world shouldn’t push gamers too hard to perform minute, precise procedures with the items they’re handling. A game that requires too much precision will quickly become frustrating for players who are lacking the tactile sensation of actually touching the objects they’re trying to move around.

A good VR experience will account for the lack of physical feedback by helping the player to understand objects in whatever way is possible, and by not forcing the player to concentrate too hard on what they’re doing. Instead, the experience should look and feel as natural as possible.

After all, playing games in VR shouldn’t feel like the board game Operation!

Loading Human is a VR game that encourages the player to interact with every object around them in a believable science fiction world. To try the experience for yourself, preorder the first episode of the game today.


David Bridgham

Producer, Gamer, Musician, Sports Car Enthusiast, Slow Jogger.

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