In Depth: These gloves let me use my hands in VR, and it's the future

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There’s an inevitable moment when you’re in a virtual reality (VR) experience and look down. Maybe you wish you hadn’t, because it’s at that moment you don’t see your hands.

It’s then you remember that you’re not really in outer space, or driving a Formula 1 race car. It’s often unexpected and usually disappointing. You can sense your hands holding the controller in your lap, yet when you look down or hold them up, they don’t manifest before your eyes. You’re taken out of the experience, even if just a little bit.

Manus VR hopes to solve this problem, and do so in a more immersive way than other virtual reality controller solutions for headsets like Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive Pre.

Instead of holding a controller, Manus uses gloves to not only bring your hands but also your fingers into the virtual world.

“What we often see is that as soon as somebody puts on the [VR] headset, the first thing they try is to grab stuff, even though their hands aren’t there,” Jules Blok, lead programmer for Manus, told techradar at GDC 2016 last week. “Even with the motion controllers, we still see people putting them away to try to grab something with their hands. So, clearly, there was a need to track this.”

Manus VR

The Netherlands-based team decided to create a solution that uses existing positional tracking of VR controllers mixed with sensors in its gloves to measure hand pose and finger movements. Dual sensors in the fingers help track grips, bends and points, letting users turn their motions into functions.

Finger sensors may sound like the easiest way to bring your digits into the digital world, but Blok says it’s far from it.

“A lot of what we’ve heard from other companies who’ve tried to use flex sensors is they’ve had trouble calibrating them,” he says. “We’ve put a lot of research into having a good calibration profile that will work for a wide range of different hands.”

The result, as I’ll describe below, is wondrous. This was just a small demo at a convention, and there are improvements to be had, but Manus is on the path to perhaps one day solving one of VR’s most pressing problems.

All hands

The gloves Manus let the public try at GDC are its engineering sample. The development kit, shipping in Q3 2016 for $250, look more like bike riding gloves, but those were housed behind a glass case.

When I sat down to try Manus’ demo, the first thing Blok did was strap two HTC Vive Pre controllers to my wrists. I’d certainly noticed them on other users beforehand, and Blok explained this is a temporary solution for positional tracking. Eventually, the team wants to build custom bracelets for each headset that will integrate with the specific systems.

Manus development kit

Next Blok helped me slip on the gloves, which have a polyester feel. I could tell there were sensors sewn in, and a small rumble pack offered some weight, but they were soft and offered decent dexterity.

Finally came the headset and headphones, and suddenly I was in a VR dollhouse where I had to help an orphan find her way home by solving a series of puzzles.

It wasn’t immediately obvious what I was supposed to do (there were no instructions or visual cues), so for a minute or so I simply played around with my hands for the very first time in virtual reality.

I have to say, it was delightful. The hands I saw – a pair of bluish-purple geometric mitts that are see-through to the skeleton, for some reason – responded to whatever I was doing in the real world. I could make a fist, point with one finger, and move my hands above and around me, and the virtual hands imitated my movements.

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