When Google released their Cardboard concept to the world at large, it was a pretty exciting time. Here we all could suddenly get a taste of VR with nothing more than a cardboard box and a phone we already owned anyway. Since then the mobile VR market has exploded and you can buy any one of thousands of VR cases. There are even now a number of standalone VR headsets on the horizon that might be the closest thing to taking an Oculus on the road with you. There are also many, many VR apps that you can pull from your app store and then experience with a Cardboard-like case.
What you’ll find, however, is that these apps might look pretty and feel very immersive, but lack any sort of meaningful or deep interactivity. The only real control you have is moving your gaze around or perhaps a single button on the side of the unit. So what can you do about it? Is there any way to take a greater degree of control of your mobile VR world? That’s where mobile controllers come into play – a simple solution that can bring an entire new dimension to mobile VR.
Common VR Controller Types
Control systems vary quite a but, since there is little standardization in the mobile VR industry. So let’s quickly go over the main types of control systems that you are likely to encounter when working with the spectrum of mobile VR products.
First off, there’s the common on-board control system. For example, the first generation of Google Cardboard has a simple magnetic switch which triggered a fluctuation in the electronic compass. This was then interpreted as an input. The magnet was later replaced with a little arm that touches the screen, which is way more reliable.
Some fancier solutions, such as the Samsung Gear VR, have a touch control on the side of the unit that lets you swipe in a direction and then tap a button to select. These are all pretty good solutions if you want to navigate menus and select options. For example, the Gear VR controls work a treat with the Netflix VR app. These solutions are pretty useless when it comes to apps that require precise control of movement or action.
Very often you’ll see mobile VR cases bundled with a simple Bluetooth controller held in one hand. This control will resemble a car’s key fob in some ways – a single stick or directional switch combined with one or more buttons. This lets the user walk around while controlling the camera with the motion of their head. This is a great compact solution; sometimes it’s hybridized into the onboard model by leaving a port for the controller to be attached to the HMD. Sometimes these controllers contain motion sensors of their own that allow compatible apps to track hand motion, but this is pretty rare.
Finally, we have traditional game pads for mobile. These usually follow the same design as their console-bound cousins – two sticks, a d-pad, shoulder buttons, triggers, and so on. These controls are highly suitable for sophisticated game control. Think of racing games, shooters, and flight sims.
Mobile Android VR Solutions
The Android operating system proves to be a challenge when it comes to picking a controller. The main reason for this is that there is practically no standard for what an Android controller should look like or how it should behave. This means that while your new controller will work just fine with one application, it won’t even be recognized by the next.
Often when a controller is bundled with a VR headset, it will only work with applications that were explicitly designed for that headset – a way for the HMD maker to punt its own VR app storefront. The approach that you have to take here is to start with the applications that interest you the most and then take note of what controller requirements they have. It may happen that you need to buy more than one controller to satisfy your needs.
iOS Controller Solutions
iOS used to have a similar problem as Android, with different makers crafting their own controller solutions and leaving it up to individual app developers to choose whether they would support a given product or not. Of course, custom Bluetooth devices are still welcome, but Apple has taken the initiative. They’ve created a game controller standard known as “MFi” or Made for iOS. Any app that says it’s compatible with MFi will work with any MFi-certified controller. App developers have really taken to this baked-in controller support, which makes life easy for all of us. Just be aware that there are two tiers to MFi controllers.
These controllers are mainly just reworked video game peripherals. The future of mobile VR control systems looks pretty bright. One neat solution that I’ve seen uses the AR camera passthrough on most mobile HMDs to track the controllers and give very precise mapping of your hand and arm movements. It’s also not out of the question that we might be seeing some more outlandish solutions such as mobile data gloves or other more ergonomic gadgets.
In the long term we might see much more advanced control systems that actually tap into our muscle and nerve signals, instead of the crude motion tracking we see these days. In fact, the founder of Oculus himself has said that these nerve-control interfaces are something that he’s looking at. Think of movies like the Matrix, where there are ports on people’s bodies that send information to their nervous systems and receive it as well.
It may sound a little creepy, but there are many reasons why we would want to have such direct computer interfaces in the future; reasons that go beyond just VR. For now we have non-invasive systems that do a similar thing, such as the Myo armband, a device you can actually buy yourself right now and use to track your gestures.
So one way or another the future of VR is one where you have more and more control over your virtual body. It sure is an exciting time!