Sky Desk & Robot Chess – Razer Hydra vs Leap Motion

Posted November 2, 2014 by Edmund in Features

Motion controls play a big part in fostering a sense of presence.

Being able to wave your hands in front of your face goes a long way towards making you feel like your whole body inhabits the virtual space, as opposed to just being a set of disembodied eyes. The Razer Hydra is currently the most supported motion controller for the Rift and it has already proven pretty decent at letting you swing swords and fire guns. But this is just one piece of the puzzle – a key test of input solutions is how they handle finesse movements. The Leap Motion is just the first in what looks like a wave of solutions capable of tracking individual fingers on your hand. Whether due to a lack of developers, or just issues with the hardware, there simply haven’t been that many DK2 demos by which to compare the two tracking methods, until recently.

leap motionIt may not be an exact like-for-like but two DK2 demos, Sky Desk for the Razer Hydra and Robot Chess for the Leap Motion, both experiment with precision use of hands to interact with virtual objects with as little abstraction as possible. Of course, this comparison should not be considered the final word on either piece of hardware, especially as future iterations and competitors to both seem to be just around the corner. However, it remains an interesting comparison because finger-based tracking could be considered an entirely alternate evolutionary branch a gamepad based solution.

AlternateAlix’s Sky Desk demo for the Razer Hydra is a mini sandbox. You are seated at a desk and are able to use your bulbous hands to manipulate a variety of objects. A control panel allows you to spawn things like blocks, toy cars, spaceships and guns which you can pick up with the press of a button and rotate with your wrist to inspect. The precision you get from the Hydra does allow you to stack blocks, for example, by pressing a button to drop the object. Combined with positional tracking, allowing you to lean around your creation, you can begin to develop great ambitions for your construction until it collapses under the forces of Sky Desk’s primitive physics.

razer hydraOf course, firing off the various guns is also a fun diversion, but without any hostile targets it soon becomes a hollow exercise. Also at your desk is a little remote controlled model Cobra Mk III spaceship, that you can fly by grabbing the two control sticks. There is a view screen that you can position anywhere in the workspace, that allows you to see your ship from where you’re seated. This feature probably provides the greatest sense of fun in the demo. It is also ultimately a great example of the advantage of any gamepad-based tracking system – analogue sticks are still useful ways to interact with objects and interfaces in a virtual environment. Even putting aside the problem of locomotion, it is hard to imagine a finger-tracking solution capable of the level of reliable, fine input that you can get from an analogue stick.

Nathan Beattie’s Robot Chess is very much as advertised. You play chess against a Robotic opponent who reaches down and moves the pieces in front of you with its hands, just as you do, using a Leap Motion Controller. With either right or left hand you can pick up a piece by pinching your thumb and index finger over it and then release to drop it over the destination square. This pinch action provides enough resistance to make the motion feel reasonably natural, and I also expect it is more reliable than clutching thin air where the virtual piece should be.

leap motion 2The trouble is that it’s still not reliable enough to be tolerable in a game like Chess. It’s easy to drop a piece in the wrong place. If you’re lucky it will trigger a horrible ‘invalid move’ sound and move the piece back to its original square. If you’re unlucky it will land in a valid square, potentially costing you the game! I can’t help but think that this is not a software problem but with the Leap controls as spotty as they are, it’s pretty unforgivable that Robot Chess doesn’t let you take back moves. Accidentally dropping your queen into danger is frustrating enough to make you want to knock the board over which, to add insult to injury, the game doesn’t let you do! Although, of course, if you could knock pieces over it would be an absolute nightmare.

There are a few other bugs, like it allowing you to move into check, or sometimes simply refusing to let you move a piece to a valid square but these issues are completely eclipsed by the fundamental input problems. The fact that you can’t reliably grip the pieces means you can’t even begin to take the time to inspect them and to appreciate the virtual physicality of the objects – and this acts as a big blow to feeling any sense of presence – you’re always battling with the input. Perhaps this could be fixed with a more abstract metaphor for gripping something but that sort of defeats the purpose of a natural interface to the point where you might as well use a controller based solution.

razer hydra 2I’ve spent some time with the Razer Hydra now and while it certainly does have its share of drawbacks, like its cables and issues with drift, it also has the benefits of buttons and sticks. While this does create a layer of abstraction that could be considered a barrier to ‘total presence’, it doesn’t completely shatter a sense of presence in the same way that tracking errors do. While I am glad that I tried it, I am unlikely to pick up Robot Chess again – it is a great demonstration of the challenges of performing even simple tasks with the Leap.

It should be noted that neither the Leap Motion nor the Razer Hydra were originally made ‘for the Rift,’ but both seem to be the progenitors of different species of VR motion tracking. The technology seems to be developing fast, but at this early stage gamepad-based motion tracking does seem to be the more reliable method of determining the player’s intent to grip or release an object, and it also has the benefits of some haptic feedback and analogue sticks when needed. Perhaps in the long run, the optimal solution will be some sort of hybrid of the two.

Skydesk

Developer Comments Here

Skydesk Here

Robot Chess

Developer Comments Here

Download Chess Here

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About the Author

Edmund

Edmund Ward is a philosophy graduate who has focused on aesthetics and cultural critique in the information age. He grew up with 'the dream of the holodeck' and is prone to get very excited by new innovations in natural user-interfaces. Edmund is currently looking for volunteers to look after the glucose drip that will sustain his "fleshform" (as he insists on calling it) when he migrates permanently to VR.

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