A Hands on Look at the State of Input in VR

How far we’ve come. Two years ago, on the eve of consumer VR, we put together a piece laying out options consumers had to get their hands into VR.

The devices at the time included:

  • HTC Vive wands that shipped with the Vive headset
  • Playstation Move controllers that were included with the PSVR headset
  • Oculus Touch controllers were just announced to ship late in 2016
  • Xbox gamepads shipped with the Oculus Rift headset
  • Keyboard and mouse inputs were available for PC based headsets

But within the past two years much has changed. With an emphasis on active experiences and the success of tracked controllers, keyboard and mouse input has become virtually nonexistent. While still present, we’ve also seen the use of gamepads diminish dramatically.

Today, as more companies enter the VR headset game and input devices continue to see rapid technological advancement, there are now more ways than ever to get your hands into VR. You can now interact with virtual objects and environments like never before, taking immersion to an entirely new level.

Below you’ll find an array of input devices spread across five different categories. These categories include input devices that are either already shipping with headsets, can be purchased as their own device, or are still in developer kit status with consumer ambition.


During the developer kit days, many PC based VR titles were built around gamepad input. Tracked controllers were still new to the market and the gamepad was a controller that gamers were already familiar with. Though Oculus Rift no longer comes bundled with an Xbox controller, there are still titles being made that are compatible with gamepads across Steam, Oculus Store, and the Playstation Store.

  • Xbox controller
  • Steam compatible controller
  • Playstation compatible controller

3DOF Wand Controllers

Google Daydream View plus 3DOF controller.

Mobile VR is one of the biggest and most accessible markets for VR. Many mobile headsets, like the Google Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR, become fully functional as soon as you slide your compatible smartphone into them. Others, like the Oculus Go or Vive Focus headsets, are all-in-one mobile solutions that don’t need an accompanying smartphone to operate. The latter two are not yet globally available, with the Vive Focus only available in China and the Oculus Go still only being sent to developers.

All of the above mentioned headsets are shipped paired with a 3 degrees-of-freedom (3DoF) controller. What this means is that in VR, it essentially acts as a pointer without letting you actually reach out and interact with objects. For the content that comes with these headsets, this level of input is an effective interaction method.

6DOF Wand Controllers

Oculus Touch hand controllers.

Fully immersive VR experiences bring us to tracked motion controllers. These six degrees of freedom (6DoF) controllers add the ability to reach out and interact with objects in a 3D space, something that 3DOF controllers lack.

The HTC Vive wands, Oculus Touch controllers, and Playstation Move controllers have set the standard since their respective releases.

With the release of the Windows “Mixed Reality” headsets this past year, their respective controllers became some of the first consumer VR devices to be inside-out tracked. This means that cameras on the headset are used to track the controllers in space vs the outside-in tracking of the aforementioned systems that require cameras to be placed around the room. The Windows Mixed Reality controllers are likely the first of many inside-out tracked controllers, adding more freedom to where you can use VR.

Valve’s Knuckles controllers are still only a developer kit without a release date, but they are an interesting hand tracking solution. They use the same SteamVR platform for 6DOF like Vive controllers, but also include a similar method to the Oculus Touch controllers for finger tracking. Each finger has a capacitive sense button that can recognize when a finger is touching it or not, allowing for approximated finger tracking. What makes these really unique is that they strap to your hand to allow you to let go of the controller without it falling from your hand. This essentially provides a “hands-free” experience and lets you finally give realistic hand waves.


From left to right: LEAP Motion motion tracking, flex sensor based motion tracking, exotendon based motion tracking.

For many, VR is a platform that should be fully immersive. To achieve this, holding a controller simply will not do. This has led many teams to developing gloves or other wearable devices that will track the motions of the hand in real time. Some of these companies are even working to add the sense of touch to VR through haptics, but for now let’s just focus on the hand tracking aspect.

There are several technological trends being used to track hands. Some companies are strategically placing IMU’s in their gloves to measure separate movements. An IMU is the device in your smartphone that allows your phone to detect the rotations and movements while in use. When laid out in an array across the hand they can effectively track the hand.

Other companies are building flex sensors into their gloves rather than using IMUs. A flex sensor is a device that when placed around a finger joint, will change value upon the bending of that joint. When laid out appropriately, they can also be effective in tracking the hand. A handful of other companies are building various hand tracking wearables using systems that range from resistive fabrics to building tracking directly into their haptic systems.

Optical Systems

Leap Motion hand tracking sensor.

While wearable glove solutions are being proven out and gaining traction, there are also benefits to having hand tracking solutions that leave you hands free. Devices like the LEAP Motion or uSense’s Fingo controllers can be placed on the front of the headset or on a nearby tabletop to provide quality finger and hand tracking.

With so many developments in the two years since the consumer launch of VR, it’s exciting to think about what advancements we’ll see in input in the coming years. There have been a couple promising hand tracking solutions teased by teams at Oculus. Initially shown by Michael Abrash during the keynote at Oculus Connect 3 and then later shown being tested by Mark Zuckerberg, Oculus is experimenting with a glove that is covered with an array of Optitrack sensors with some impressive results.

On the controller side, for the past several years, Oculus has been privately demoing their standalone Santa Cruz headset. Paired with this headset are inside-out tracked 6 DOF controllers, combining the best of the Oculus Go and Touch controllers in one.

With all of these advancements in only two years, it’s exciting to think about what we’ll see in the years to come.

About the Scout

Tom Buchanan

Tom is a cofounder and hardware engineer for Contact CI, a company developing VR input gloves. In his spare time he can be found playing ice hockey, rugby, or reading Ready Player One for the nth time.

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