Hands-on with the VR gaming, motion-tracking STEM System

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

Virtual Reality, it seems, is destined to become the future of gaming. Since the very day that the Oculus Rift stepped onto the crowdfunding scene, gamers have been coming out of the woodwork in support of this new, ever more immersive style of play. Nobody — with the possible exception of the makers of the Rift itself — knows this better than the developers at Sixense.

Before developing the STEM System, Sixense was responsible for the motion-tracking tech inside the Razer Hydra controller. Within days of the Oculus Rift's emergence, every Hydra controller available worldwide was snapped up. But rather than simply ordering up another batch of Hydra controllers, Sixsense stepped up development on an all-new controller: the STEM System. Offering up to eight hours of wireless gaming on a charge, the STEM System is a five-module, full body motion capture rig that provides haptic feedback and precise, practically instantaneous motion control.

The most obvious advantage the STEM System has over its predecessor is that it functions wirelessly. This allows for both a larger gaming area and easier VR gaming. Where the Hydra had roughly a three-foot gaming radius to work with, the STEM System's controllers can be held at up to eight feet from their base. There's also the option of merging the gaming areas of up to three STEM bases to create an even larger radius. The way in which Sixense has chosen to implement their wireless connectivity is also worth mentioning, as it is both highly accurate and innovative. Inside each STEM module there resides an electromagnet at the center of three concentric coils, which swing along all three axes of motion. By generating a weak electromagnetic field, the controllers can send constant data to their base concerning their orientation and movement speed. They even maintain connection when you swing your arms behind your back or duck behind your couch.

The STEM System I tested was a prototype — one with a total of three STEM sensors: two handheld controllers and a head sensor clipped to an Oculus Rift. Before strapping on the VR headset I had been worried that the two sets of positioning data from the Rift and the STEM might conflict, especially since the STEM System has a lower latency rate than the Rift. Those worries disappeared when I first craned my neck while playing the Rift's Tuscany demo. More than simply tracking my head more accurately, the STEM System actually allowed me more control than the Rift does alone. I was able to crane my head out of windows and around corners without my avatar actually stepping forward. During slower-paced gameplay, I even experienced a complete lack of the usual nausea which accompanies VR gaming.

A similarly cooperative boost of functionality can be reported for the Virtuix Omni treadmill, though one was not on hand for this report. By pairing up your STEM System with the Omni, you will be capable of drastically improving leg tracking, compared with other solutions like the Kinect sensor. Rather than simply walking from place to place in-game, STEM sensors allow for run speed data to be processed. If you need to sprint away from something in-game, you can simply sprint along the surface of your Omni, and your avatar will respond in kind.

It's this sort of attention to the other forces within the VR gaming marketplace that will truly set the STEM System ahead of the competition. If we are to truly lose ourselves in the game, we need a gaming rig that works in unison to get us there. In more ways than one, the developers at Sixsense are keenly aware of this need. The controllers are ergonomic and have intuitively-placed buttons. Each STEM sensor will provide not only motion tracking, but haptic feedback as well. And with each STEM System supporting up to five STEMs at a time, you'll feel the ground beneath your feet, the kick of your sidearm or even the impact of a fatal headshot.

With a rig like this wrapped all about you, it's easy to get sucked into the game. One gaming demo in particular, in which your character is being chased by swarms of massive tarantula/scorpions even freaked me out enough that I began screeching in panic as the monsters closed in for the kill — this is also right about the time that the specter of VR nausea reared its ugly head — but the immersion doesn't stop at what you see in-game.

The STEM system is designed to accommodate almost any controller you desire. Already on-hand during my demo were a golf club, a sword and a very innovative take on the classic gun controller: a barrel which snapped into the front of the existing STEM controller. For gamers who have their own ideas for other controller modifications, Sixense will be releasing the dimensions of their controller's snap-on port. With that information in hand, gamers can 3D print controllers of their own, in whatever shape they like.

To aid in this creative aspect of their new system, Sixense has also been working on a 3D modeling and printing software called MakeVR. It's easy, using the STEM controllers to quickly design something you like and send it off to be printed.

In short, the STEM System was a wonder to behold and as intuitive a controller setup as we are to see for VR gaming. With a modular infrastructure, an expandable gaming area and infinitely-customizable controllers, I'm chomping at the bit to pick up one of my own. After all, I owe a certain murderous arachnid a rematch.

(All photos by Raymond Wong for DVICE.)

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