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Games like 'Augmented Empire' are why Gear VR needs a controller

Samsung's new Gear VR and motion controller couldn't get here fast enough.

Games like 'Augmented Empire' are why Gear VR needs a controller
Sean Buckley
Sean Buckley|@seaniccus|February 28, 2017 10:00 AM

If you've ever used a Samsung Gear VR before, you've probably found yourself awkwardly tapping the side of the headset to issue a command, or fumbling with its four-way touchpad to make a selection in a menu. This inelegant, embedded touch control is a necessary evil -- a compromise that allows the headset to be a self-contained VR experience free of the complicated peripherals and setup required of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. I struggled with its faults at Oculus' GDC demo day as I uncomfortably tapped my way through a battle in Augmented Empire.

Holding my arm to the side of the headset, constantly rapping the side of it to direct characters and attack enemies, I thought that there had to be a better way to control a tactical RPG in virtual reality. Then somebody told me Samsung had announced a new Gear VR earlier that morning. One with a motion controller. That sounds so much better.

The new Gear VR's included motion controller is more than just Samsung's answer to Google Daydream -- it's a piece that's been missing from Oculus' mobile-VR platform. And nothing makes that more apparent than a game like Augmented Empire. It's a tactical RPG akin to games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and tasks the player with leading a soldier through a series of story-driven battles played on a grid. Well, technically, in Augmented Empire the battles are played on a very meta augmented-reality hologram platform within the virtual-reality experience, but the result is still a top-down tactical battle game that needs the player to input a lot of commands. The Gear VR is terrible at that.

It's not that the experience isn't passable -- using the center of the player's vision as a cursor and "clicking" by rapping the side of the headset is a tried-and-true Gear VR control setup -- but holding up your arm for extended periods of time gets old quick. By the end of my brief demo, I was tired of it. Even having a hand-held button to replace the arm-extending tap would improve the experience by a wide margin.

Fortunately, it's coming. Augmented Empire's developer told me the company was excited about the new Gear VR controller, agreeing that the game is at its best with a proper input device. Unfortunately, that wasn't an experience I was able to have: Although the new Gear VR and controller were announced that morning, Oculus didn't have the new hardware on display at its GDC showcase.

Still, it's a promising development for Samsung's mobile-VR kit, and not just because it will make games like Augmented Empire better. If Oculus Connect 3 taught us anything, it's that motion controls are a game-changer in VR -- a seemingly small but significant tweak that makes even the most basic VR experiences feel more immersive. Bringing a simplified version of that to mobile VR is welcome, and frankly, long overdue.

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Games like 'Augmented Empire' are why Gear VR needs a controller