Oculus unveils Touch controllers, social VR

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Oculus unveils Touch controllers, social VR

The Facebook-owned company's developer conference pushed virtual reality as a social experience.

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Oculus unveils Touch controllers, social VR

Marco della Cava , USA TODAY 4:32 p.m. EDT October 6, 2016
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage today at the Oculus Connect developers conference and showed off a taste of the company’s mobile VR future. USA TODAY

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Mark Zuckerberg dons an Oculus Rift at Connect to interact in VR with two other colleagues.(Photo: Oculus)

SAN FRANCISCO — The key to the success of virtual reality is compelling content.

On Thursday, Oculus put on a show for game developers aimed at reassuring the community that its efforts were being supported by the pioneering VR company to the tune of $250 million in investment to date.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives — though notably not Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, who recently caused a stir with his political donations - took the stage at Oculus Connect 3 in San Jose to unveil new hardware and software that promises to usher in a new level of interactivity for the nascent technology.

"When we bought Oculus (for $2 billion in 2014), we thought it would be next major computing platform," said Zuckerberg. "Now, more than a million people are using VR products."

Zuckerberg drew laughs from developers when he said that meeting with various world leaders inevitably led to a demo of Oculus Rift: "One prime minister's wife actually got angry, saying they had to leave, but he wouldn't because he said, 'I was told there are dinosaurs, I want to see dinosaurs.'"

Oculus Touch ($199) is a pair of hand controllers that

Oculus Touch ($199) is a pair of hand controllers that allow users to digitally interact with VR content. (Photo: Oculus)

On the hardware side, Oculus will begin shipping $199 Touch hand controllers in December, which allow VR users to use their hands to manipulate simulated environments. Also announced where $49 Oculus Earphones, new earbuds for the $600 Oculus Rift goggle that improve sound realism.

Some 35 new games will be unveiled over the coming months that leverage Touch, from a VR spray-painting experience (Kingspray) to a dangerous space mission (Lone Echo).

On the software front, Oculus Avatars and Rooms allows developers to, respectively, create VR proxies for themselves and place them in a virtual space with other avatars. In this way, conversing, playing games and watching a movie become social experiences shared within a VR world.

Zuckerberg amused the 2,500 developers (double last year's event) by performing a demo that saw him meet two colleagues in VR. He quickly changed the venue from the convention center stage to his Facebook office to his home, where he called his wife Priscilla on a virtual cell phone then took a VR selfie with the entire group.

Using Oculus Touch controllers, players of Kingspray

Using Oculus Touch controllers, players of Kingspray can manipulate paint spray cans to create a mural. (Photo: Kingspray)

"Oculus really made big push on content, though I'm disappointed there wasn't more news on any improvements on the existing hardware," says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. "But if I was a VR developer, I now see there are lots of cool things I could be working on. These folks here are really excited."

The magic of VR is in its ability to transport the viewer to another world via an occluded goggle. Oculus Rift represents, along with HTC Vive and Sony's new PlaystationVR, the technological apex. But most consumers are apt to experience VR through smartphone-based options that include Samsung GearVR Powered By Oculus and Google's newly announced Daydream platform for its Pixel phones.

The pressure is on to not only create compelling VR experiences and social platforms but also to do so at price points that engage the mass market. While smartphones don't offer the kind of resolution that produces what VR experts call "presence," they are nearly ubiquitous and provide a low cost of entry into the VR world.

To help overcome that obstacle, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said Rift can now be powered by less expensive PCs, including one from Cyberpower that will able to run the VR goggle for $499. When the device first debuted, it required a computer costing upwards of $1,000 to make its graphics come to life.

Mark Zuckerberg's avatar (center in virtual selfie

Mark Zuckerberg's avatar (center in virtual selfie stick photo) interacts with two colleagues' avatars while visiting the Facebook founder's home in VR. The woman in the photo that Zuckerberg's avatar is holding up is his wife, Priscilla Chan, whose real image was conferenced into the VR meet-up. All of which showcases the social potential of VR. (Photo: Screen shot from Oculus Connect 3 livestream)

Expensive goggles requiring dedicated computers such as Rift and Vive have so far captivated gamers, but still don't provide indispensable experiences for a broader audience. Beyond developing new content that targets a wider audience, one solution could be in a so-dubbed All In One device that represents a middle ground between smartphone and goggle-based VR.

Zuckerberg showed a very short video of what he called "just a prototype" of that very device, which looked like Oculus Rift only without cords snaking back to a PC and a slightly bulky box toward the back of the head.

Oculus developers were shown a new avatar creation

Oculus developers were shown a new avatar creation tool that will help make the platform more realistically social. (Photo: Oculus)

"This is the next step," he said.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava @marcodellacava.

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