The future will be strapped on: Testing wearable tech at E3
Ryan Smith tries out the Control VR system.
Ryan Smith tries out the Control VR system.

The future will be strapped on: Testing wearable tech at E3

The conversations at E3 last week centered mostly on games played the old-fashioned way, by pressing buttons on a handheld controller and staring into a television. But the underrated story of the conference was the gathering storm of wearable technology poised to usurp the current kings of gaming interfaces. Playing Mario Party 15 or Assassin’s Creed: War Of 1812 in the near future could mean covering ourselves head-to-toe with enough “smart” clothes and accessories that we’ll resemble a poor man’s Robocop. Or maybe I’m just being an alarmist. I ventured into this untamed frontier of video game technology on the E3 show floor to find out for myself.

Oculus Rift

What it is: Virtual reality goggles that foster the illusion of a surrounding world by tracking your head movement and offering a view of a game environment from every angle imaginable. Oculus executives are likely using their own device to swim in a computer-generated sea of their own money: Facebook bought the company for $2 billion in March

What I played: Oculus reps weren’t in the mood to accommodate the press, and I didn’t want to twiddle my thumbs in hour-long lines, so I tinkered with the Rift at other booths that were showing off the tech. I tried my hand (and face) at a very early demo version of a wonderfully serene spacewalking game called Adr1ft, a sort of Gravity: The Video Game minus Clooney and Bullock. I later got a case of the queasies while strolling around a mystical island in XING: The Land Beyond, a new take on Myst. The solution to that puzzle was Pepto-Bismol.

Best-case scenario: Virtual reality helmets have been tantalizing us for decades (Lawnmower Man, anyone?), but in the ideal case for Oculus, this iteration of the concept finally catches on and becomes standard in everyone’s living room. It happens thanks to a tipping point in technological acceptance and the power of Mark Zuckerberg bending us all to his iron will.

Worst-case scenario: VR cries wolf again as the general public shrugs their collective shoulders at the idea of wearing something that looks like an evil computer monitor is eating their heads like the facehuggers from Alien. Oculus is relegated to niche status, serving as a highly immersive way to play Farmville and other Facebook games.

Control VR

What it is: A pair of soft black gloves are attached to an elbow piece and shoulder yoke while a glowing red circle hangs above the user’s chest. “Are you guys building an early version of Iron Man?” I asked Control VR CEO Alex Sarnoff. “Yep,” he replied with a smile. When paired with the Oculus Rift, Control VR lets you see your own hands move in a virtual reality setting. Sarnoff is not shy about its potential. “It’s going to change the world,” he said. He added that Control VR works as an intuitive control and communication device for applications that apparently include virtual classrooms, sign language, DJs looking for fun ways to control pyrotechnics at the club, and disaster relief efforts. Perhaps Control VR will eventually be a way to steer America’s futuristic army of robots, Sarnoff wondered aloud, allowing the technology to facilitate actual killing rather than just the simulated kind. Bonus: “We think there will be interest from the adult entertainment industry,” Sarnoff said.

What I played: Less a game and more of a way to experience low gravity, I possessed the body of an astronaut and walked on the moon in an untitled demo. The gloves were startlingly accurate, adding to the sensation of being the next Neil Armstrong. I pressed a button on a Wii nunchuk to leap into the air and felt my knees bend to brace for impact on the moon’s surface. The most surreal moment occurred with I saw a flash of movement to the right and turned to see a fellow space traveler. We exchanged waves, thumbs-up, and, yes, even a friendly extended middle finger. Mission accomplished, I say.

Best-case scenario: Sarnoff is right. The world is indeed totally transformed by Control VR, and we all wonder how we ever manipulated virtual worlds without a shoulder yoke.

Worst-case scenario: Players are still too haunted by the memory of the NES Power Glove to try another glove control accessory.

Razer Nabu

What it is: Combine a smartwatch with a fitness band and you get… a smartband! No, seriously. The Nabu is a bracelet that hooks on your wrist and features a small display that spits out texts and other notifications from your phone. Ignore them by shaking your wrist. The band can also track your location, steps walked, altitude, and sleep data. Plus, it has the ability to communicate with other Nabus.

What I played: No real games exist for it yet, but the Razer representative I talked to claimed 20,000 developers are in the process of working with Nabu. Game possibilities include an augmented-reality version of tag or capture the flag.

Best-case scenario: People who like smartwatches and fitness bands abandon them for the multitasking Nabu. The potential ace in Nabu’s hole is a feature that lets you “match” with other users in the area based on shared interests and the like—meaning it could lead to Super Tinder 2.0. Not creepy at all, right?

Worst-case scenario: Wonder Woman’s bracelets work because they’re functional AND stylish. The sample Nabu I wore felt and looked like a rubber police handcuff. That may doom a piece of wearable tech.

Boogio

What it is: Potentially the most genius use of footware since Get Smart’s shoe phone, Boogio claims that it can make any shoe a “smart shoe.” Each unit includes a pair of insoles containing a thin layer of sensors and accelerometers. A Bluetooth-enabled clip attaches to the side of one shoe. The sensors gather data about the pressure exerted by parts of your foot and upload it to a variety of Boogio-enabled apps. Boogio CEO Jose Torres said the technology could be used for games, diagnosing your body’s faulty biomechanics, or as an alternative to pressing buttons (“Maybe it could be hooked to your car, so you tap your foot twice to open your trunk,” Torres said). It could also be employed by factories to “optimize” movement, according to Torres, an idea likely to prompt cackles of evil delight from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

What I played: Torus Trooper, a fast-paced space shooter in which you steer a ship through a scrolling cylinder. I leaned on my left foot to steer the ship left and vice versa. To stop shooting, I leaned back on my heels and jumped to restart the game. It was not a natural fit. The problem, according to a Boogio developer at the show, is that no games have been created to take advantage of all the data provided by the Boogio. Like Razer with its Nabu, the Boogio is relying on outside studios to craft games specific for the device. Torres also dropped the shudder-inducing phrase “gamification of movement” while speculating about possible Boogio games.

Best-case scenario: We’ll all play infinite runners like Canabalt by literally running non-stop. Boogio could also be paired with a device like the Kinect to enhance other kinds of motion gaming.

Worst-case scenario: Once players discover how much effort it takes to actually jump whenever you want Mario to jump, the market decides Boogio is more suited to podiatry than games. (Another potential doom scenario: The developers underestimate the gizmo-killing power of foot sweat.)

Project Morpheus

What it is: Picture the Oculus Rift with a Sony logo on it. Also: PlayStation compatibility. 

What I played: Nothing. Sony only pulled back the curtain for a limited number of press, and The A.V. Club wasn’t cool enough to make the cut.

Best-case scenario: Sony learns from the hard lessons of Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy, and PlayStation 4 owners are fine with the fact that they look like Cyclops from the X-Men when they’re playing games.

Worst-case scenario: Morpheus spawns a thousand Matrix memes on Tumblr before being relegated to the same Sony scrap heap that’s home to the PlayStation Move and the PSP Go.

Virtuix Omni

What it is: As seen on Shark Tank, the Omni is a “treadmill” that enables 360-degree movement in virtual reality by tracking the movement of your feet on a concave surface. First you slip on Virtuix’s custom sneakers, which have slippery plastic pegs on the bottom. Then you put on an Oculus Rift, step into the Omni’s ring, and strap into a harness so you don’t fall on your face while wearing an expensive VR headset.

What I played: At first I was treated to a short walking tour of Amsterdam. You don’t walk normally on the Omni as much as you strategically slide. I felt like Bambi slipping on an icy pond at first, but I eventually gained my VR legs. I then shot a plastic gun accessory at zombie-mutant things in a game whose name I didn’t write down because I was too busy pissing my pants. Survival horror, as it turns out, is much more effective when you have to physically turn to see the monster breathing down your neck.

Best-case scenario: Virtuix finds ways to improve the movement—currently, not all of your steps are translated on screen—and beats out Boogio in the war of virtual reality for your feet.

Worst-case scenario: A few people buy Omnis and use them a few times before stuffing them in their basement next to the “normal” treadmills that have been similarly abandoned.

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