With Manus VR gloves, you'll be able to play a piano in VR

Want to pinch something? Wiggle your thumbs? Flip someone off? With a cheap, consumer-oriented VR glove like the Manus, you might be able to.

Over the past few weeks, both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have entered their consumer-launch PR-cycles. One of the major things reviewers have cited in their reviews of the Vive is the intense sense of presence you get from the Vive’s controllers. VR headsets put our heads right inside digital worlds; adding our hands to that world as well, letting us interact naturally with the things in it, really completes the illusion of reality.

At GDC this year, I got to try a kind of VR glove which aims to take the “actually touching stuff in VR” fantasy to its logical conclusion. Swedish company Manus VR demoed a glove which, when combined with Vive controllers strapped to your forearms, provides extremely convincing hand-presence in VR.

It wasn’t perfect, by any means-- I had the feeling that my gloves were suffering a little from convention wear-and-tear-- but in the demo game, Pillow’s Willow by Pillow Willow Studios, I had transparent hands with fingers that bent whenever my real fingers bent. I could wave my arms around, and they’d move. I could poke things, and they’d respond. I played a little magical piano with my forefinger, then with my pinky finger. I flipped the bird. I grabbed fireflies out of the air. It wasn’t miles and miles better than merely using a normal Vive controller-- I mean, I’ve played Vive demos, and sometimes you don’t really need your hands to exist as physics objects in a game-- but it was certainly pretty damn cool.

The Manus glove itself is just that-- a glove, with sensors in the fingers which can tell when you’re bending a finger, and by how much. In the developer kit version, the glove part will actually have no wires in it whatsoever. Most of the electronics are located in a small plastic pod on the back of the wrist, which can also vibrate to provide feedback. The technology that Manus used to track hand and arm positioning in the demo was just a regular HTC Vive controller, literally strapped onto the user’s arm with foam padding and velcro straps. By itself, all Manus does is finger-tracking. The demo itself was designed for use with the Vive controllers, and I didn’t see any software designed for just the Manus glove alone.

You can use the glove without a VR headset if you’d like, however. “There are a lot of applications for the glove outside of virtual reality hand presence,” said Stjin Stumpel, the glove’s product designer. “We’ve played Portal with a banana as a gun, because we know when the trigger is pulled and we know where the hand is. We flew drones with it, we can control robots it, because it’s just a remote control in the shape of a glove, basically.”

So far, the demo game is the only game purposefully built to use the glove, but some games for the Vive, like Job Simulator, can be used with it even though there’s no finger tracking supported in those games. They just map different actions in the game to different hand motions. “...we can set the threshhold for when it goes to thirty degrees on this finger joint, then it grabs. You can fine tune that,” Stumpel told me.

Stumpel says that “Our next step is to raise around 8 million Euros and start manufacturing the product and getting it out to developers." They're going to need developers on board to make software that requires the product, of course. "But we are very much focused on consumer virtual reality,” Stumpel says.

The gloves are going to cost $250 for a pair of the developer kit gloves. “The consumer kit will be much cheaper in price,” Stumpel said. “Currently the quantities of production are not very high, and integrating electronics into fabrics in a way like this, for a consumer product, that is something that has rarely ever been done before industry, so that’s where we’re kind of experimenting at the moment. We can go much more affordable when we scale up.”

I’m actually not that surprised that they expect to be able to lower the price. The gloves are not actually that much stuff-- just cloth, the plastic wrist node, and embedded flex sensors. There’s not too many moving parts. The consumer version of the glove will also be washable and waterproof, strong enough to withstand even a washing machine. “We’ve made sure to keep the system very simple and robust,” Stumpel said

Virtual reality gloves are, of course, not new. “There’s gloves out there on the market in the kind of business to business professional virtually reality sphere,” Stumpel said, “that really cost a hundred times more than these. And these do the exact same thing.” The gloves he’s talking about are the kind of gloves that companies use to train employees on extremely sensitive or expensive industrial or scientific equipment. Manus’s gloves are simply the first modern ones aimed affordably at a consumer audience. Their SDK will be open source, though, “So anyone who buys the glove can use it outside of that use case for any application and we strongly encourage that.”

The trick to selling them to actual consumers, and not industrial-equipment-training companies, will be to come up with a game that actually requires finger-flexing hand presence in order to be fun. I have no doubt that these could improve a couple Vive and Rift games, but if they want to actually sell these to people, they’re going to need an experience that requires the glove. I like the idea of real hand presence in VR games, but to be fully convinced, I too would need to see a game where hand presence is essential.

Maybe we’ll get more discerning as we all get more used to VR-- we’ll start demanding gloves and bodysuits, like in Ready Player One, or whatever-- but Vive controllers by themselves are pretty great. Manus knows that people aren’t making VR glove games right now, but they’re clearly hoping that their open-source SDK will make people want to. Without those games Manus is still a technology looking for an application. Here’s hoping it finds one.