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Oculus Touch review: The handiest VR controller yet

The Oculus Touch controllers add motion controls to the Rift VR headset.

Unless you own an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR, you have probably written off virtual reality as the great non-starting tech trend of 2016.

And in a way, you’re totally right. For all the hubbub about how VR will change the world, the first iteration of its flagship products have struggled to connect with consumers, either due to price, design or a generally unfinished feel. Those of us who bought in are having fun, but we get why no one else really wants to buy in just yet.

Oculus Touch, however, brings the Facebook-owned (FB) Oculus and its Rift at least one step closer to the virtual reality game-changer we’ve all been crowing about. Released as an optional accessory for the Rift headset, the twin controllers are about as far from optional as an accessory can get. Lightweight but sturdy, they shoot the Rift past the competition by delivering the most engaging way to interact in a virtual space currently available to the public.

Hands in hand

The $200 Touch package is pretty svelte, containing two Oculus Touch controllers and one tracking camera identical to the one that comes with the Rift headset. Compared to the 6 year-old PlayStation Move wands and the large, wonky Vive sticks, the two Touch controllers are surprisingly elegant. Each sits comfortably in the hand, your index and middle finger resting on touch capacitive triggers while your thumb sits on a small analog stick next to two traditional buttons.

The addition of motion controls greatly improves the sense of immersion while using the Rift.

This does a few cool things. The position of your hand and fingers makes the act of gripping something natural, and indeed, if you grab anything using the Touch controllers – a gun, a sword, a football — it feels like you’re actually grabbing it, not just pressing the ‘pick up’ button. What’s more remarkable is how well those capacitive triggers track your resting state; gently lift your finger from a trigger and your virtual finger does the same. Though you don’t get full five-fingered representative moment, it’s a step past analog, mirroring your input even when you’re not actually inputting anything. More than anything, it convincingly tethers your real-world hand and finger position to their virtual representations. That’s big, and it’s wonderfully effective.

The space case

Combined with the one that comes with the Rift headset, the extra tracking sensor delivers small room-scale VR that does a fine job of freeing you from the immediate space in front of your computer. I played a number of Oculus Touch games while puttering around in a roughly 5’ x 7’ space, and considering the fact that the Rift is still wired to a PC, I’m not sure I’d be game to go any further without MacGyvering the kind of crazy VR rig hardcore Vive fans have demonstrated.

Each Oculus Touch controller features a joystick, two traditional buttons and a trigger.

That said, it’s still a step behind the Vive. That’s because with the Rift’s cameras positioned in front of you, it’s easy to block the Touch controllers with your body. In contrast, the Vive uses two IR sensors positioned diagonally from each other so you can’t block the system’s controllers or headset no matter where you stand. A third camera can be connected to the Rift to better simulate Vive-level room-scale VR, but I’m unconvinced these elaborate setups lead to the best experiences at the moment. Other than a handful of games that encourage rummaging around your entire room, most VR games understand the limitations of most setups and focus their energy on entertaining you in a reasonable amount of physical space.

The play’s the thing

And that’s why you’re here, primarily: to be entertained. The good news is that with 53 Touch-supported games available at launch, there are plenty of options.

One of my favorite games from E3 2016, pack-in title “The Unspoken” is a fantastic showpiece for the system’s accurate capture. A multiplayer marriage of Harry Potter and the revered coin-op game “Discs of Tron,” the game turns you into an urban wizard, flinging spells and hopping between platforms as you try to take down an opposing wizard across the arena. It’s immediately gratifying; holding a smoldering fireball in your hand and hurling it like a baseball across an alleyway looks and feels like (I imagine) it should. Though the primarily multiplayer affair highlights the small user base and gaps in Oculus’ backend (hooking up with friends should be easier), it works, and it works well.

The Touch controllers require a second camera sensor to track their movements.

I was equally stunned by “VR Sports Challenge,” a game with a name so lame, you’d swear it already came and went back in 2010 on the Wii. But this collection of four sports mini-games is actually more Wii Sports than Wii shovelware. I genuinely broke a sweat hurling footballs, shooting baskets and blocking pucks as I tried to unseat some friends on the smartly included in-game leaderboards.

There are plenty of other excellent Touch games to check out. James Bond-inspired escape room puzzler “I Expect You to Die” is a winner, and “Oculus Medium” is a solid competitor to the 3D art program “Tiltbrush” for the Vive. Crytek’s previously released rock-climbing sim “The Climb” is vastly improved with Touch controls. I even spent some time with “Fruit Ninja VR” – yes, that “Fruit Ninja,” now in VR – and it’s good fun.

It’s a solid lineup all around, though as was the case with the launch of the Rift back in April, the Touch lacks a flagship system-seller. A suite of good software is great if you already own it, but I’m not sure anything here qualifies as a must-play.

And that’s been the story with VR all year long. Tons of really cool stuff, yet nothing really worth the price of admission alone. And considering that altogether ($200 for Touch, $600 for Rift) the Touch will run a newbie $800 before any PC upgrades to get it all working, that’s a really steep price.

But if you’ve already bought in, you’d be crazy to stop now. It’s enormously disappointing that the Touch wasn’t ready in time for the Rift’s initial launch — it is as important to the system as the Wii remotes were to the Wii — but better late than never. If you own a Rift, you need to own Touch, too. It’s that simple.

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.