The state of consumer VR is pretty great right now. If you own any high-end headset and the sort of computer that can push the graphics needed to make it work, you already know it’s pretty damn convincing. I’ve spent countless hours in VR and let me tell you that it doesn’t take much to fool my old brain into thinking it’s really drifting in space or sharing a room with creepy monsters and creatures.

If you like playing cockpit-based VR games, then it’s even easier to get something that feels real going. After all, you’re sitting down both in real life and in VR! Still, there are ways to make your VR experience even more realistic. Some are impractical; you’ll have to dedicate a room to them. Others are a little silly, at least for now. Many of these devices are pretty darn expensive. However, if you want to push the envelope of modern consumer VR, this is the place to start.

Room-Scale Trackers and Inside-Out Tracking

The first next-gen headsets like the Oculus Rift use an external tracking camera. It sits on your desk and looks at the headset as you wear it. By tracking infrared lights on the headset surface, you can get precise movement reproduction in 3D space. Unfortunately, this tracking solution only really works if you’re sitting or standing still.

If you want to move around a space, you need tracking that covers the entire space. There are two types of devices that can do this. Room-scale trackers sweep the entire room and know where your headset is in that space. The only game in town for a long time was the Lighthouse product from HTC, for use with their Vive headsets. Now there are a few other options for use with other headsets, but you’ll have to do some compatibility homework.

If you don’t already own a headset, a generally better solution might be one with inside-out tracking, where the headset has cameras mounted in it that perform tracking by looking at the environment around you.

Touch Motion Controllers

The traditional gamepad has been the mainstay of VR experiences for some time, but the new standard is becoming the touch controller.

These are fully motion-tracked devices that represent your hands in 3D space. The designs vary, but cutting-edge units like the latest Knuckles controllers from Valve even do per-finger tracking, to simulate gripping of objects. It’s a wholly intuitive way to interact with the VR world. While it might be considered “advanced” right now, it’s quickly becoming the standard, reflected in the fact that new headsets released usually bundle such controllers in from the get-go.

Haptic Gloves

Senso inside

Touch controllers are an amazing step up and quite affordable, but they only let you touch the virtual world. They don’t let you actually feel anything. Haptic gloves, on the other (er) hand, actually simulate feedback.

The most basic implementation of this technology let’s you feel the size and shape of something, like and apple or a doorknob. Experimental ones are working on sensations such as cold, heat, wetness, and even texture. The Senso VR gloves will run you a few hundred dollars, as an example. The HaptX gloves are only available as a developer kit at the time of writing.

Just as with VR headsets, I expect the prices to come down over time. There are already lower-end affordable gloves on the market, such as the Plexus gloves that cost less than half what Senso wants for their products. You get force feedback and per-finger tracking – a huge step up from touch controllers.

Haptic Body Suits

Teslasuit Haptic VR Smart Apparel

While haptic gloves are pretty pricey, they are quite practical. It’s only a little more cumbersome than putting on any pair of gloves. A full-body suit is, well, less practical. Yet if you want the ultimate cutting-edge VR experience today, a full-body suit is the next best thing to jacking your brain directly into the Matrix.

Take the Teslasuit as an example. It looks a little like a wetsuit, but built into this unassuming garment is some pretty impressive tech. It can simulate touch all over the body, provide resistance to create physical exertion, and even make you hot or cold. Right now this sort of product isn’t really used for gaming, but rather for training simulations.

We do, however, have consumer products that fall in the same ballpark, such as force-feedback vests that let you “feel” the impact of a gunshot or punch. Some even use sound, which we’ll look at next.

The Woojer Haptic Sound Device

Modern headphones are pretty incredible! With the right set of cans you can get a listening experience that’s on par with the best speaker systems. Well, in most ways at least. There’s one place where headphones just can’t compete and it all has to do with energy and air pressure. In case you didn’t know, sound is simply air being moved – energy waves propagating through a medium. Just like waves of water, waves of air move your eardrum, which in turn generates a signal your brain interprets as sound.

When you attend a live concert, the amount of energy being put into the air is massive. You don’t just perceive it with your ears, but with your whole body. Likewise, an explosion is more than just sound. It’s a pressure wave you can feel with your whole body. So no matter how accurate something sounds in VR, there isn’t any energy directed at your body to complete the picture.

That’s where the Woojer comes in. It’s a special in-line sound device that pushes low-frequency energy into your body, so that you can feel the thump of an explosion or the roar of a river. Best of all, it’s a relatively inexpensive device and isn’t just for VR. You can use it to enhance regular games, movies, or even music.

The Leap Motion

There are many motion-tracking solutions for VR, but most of them are a little crude and only aimed at tracking motion using reference points such as infrared LEDs mounted on controllers or headsets. It works well, but it’s nothing like the Leap Motion. The Leap Motion is a device that essentially scans 3D space in front of it with high levels of precision. It was originally meant as a new way to interact with PCs. For example, you could use it with a 3D modelling program to directly shape objects like virtual clay.

The Leap Motion never really caught on for this particular use, but VR enthusiasts quickly realized that if you taped one to the front of a VR headset, you could precisely digitize your hands. Soon we saw official mounting brackets and software support for the device. It’s only worth getting one of these if you want to use an application specifically designed to work with it, but the Leap is actually pretty cheap and the worst case scenario for integration would be a piece of double-sided tape.

Omnidirectional Treadmills

Omnidirectional Treadmills

This is probably one of the most extravagant and impractical VR accessories you can buy, but it also literally opens up the VR world for you without the fear that you’ll literally hit a wall in real life. Basically, an omnidirectional treadmill allows you to walk (or run) in any direction you want. Advanced models let you jump and crouch as well. There are basic units that only allow a sort of shuffling walk and others, such as the Virtuix Omni, that let you run as fast as your legs can go, with the help of special low-friction shoes and a harness.

The big value proposition of these treadmills is that they allow you to explore the VR world freely and naturally. Playing something like Skyrim VR means you can walk for miles through the forests and mountains, rather than feeling like a guy in a chair being pushed through the fantasy world like a medieval Professor X from the X-men.

The big, high-end devices like the Omni are incredibly expensive and it’s really just VR arcades that buy these, but more basic models for consumer use are available. At the high end we are talking thousands of dollars just for the treadmill, but if you’re a hardcore VR fan then this is a massive leap in immersiveness.

Foot Motion Controllers

Omnidirectional treadmills are awesome, but for 99% of people they just aren’t practical or affordable. Does that mean you have to be bound to a chair or thumbstick movement controls forever? It turns out there is a middle ground.

Foot motion controllers, like the one from 3dRudder, take subtle inputs from your feet and then interpret them as walking, running, jumping, or crouching. I’ve seen some solutions that attach to your shoes and others that work more like the old Wii balance board, where you shift your weight in the direction you want to go. It might not be actual walking, but it does free up your hands from doing double duty as both hands and feet.

Cockpit Motion Engines

VRMotion

In my article on how to build a pro racing rig I briefly talked about cockpit motion simulators. While they have a big role to play in high-end racing setups, VR or otherwise, they really apply to any sort of cockpit-based VR game from flight sims to stompy sci-fi mech games. A cockpit motion engine attached to a cockpit sim frame moves the whole thing to let you feel what’s happening in VR.

You may have seen the ultra high-end version of this at theme parks or malls, where you sit inside a virtual roller coaster. There are powerful hydraulic arms that shake and move the cab around to give you a simulated roller coaster feel. The ones you can buy for home use obviously can’t flip you upside down or tilt the whole platform the way that big theme park rigs can, but it’s still an amazing experience to feel full-body roll and shudder.

In fact, these systems have clever tricks to make you feel like you’re spinning or moving further than you actually are. It’s a pretty advanced piece of technology and you’re likely to pay thousands of dollars for this add-on as it stands. If you are super serious about your sims however, few things can top this technology.

Smell Simulators

Feelreal Kickstarter

VR is covering almost all of the senses. Sight, sound, touch, texture, and even hot and cold are possible. So what about smell? It might not be the flashiest aspect of VR, but smell is an important part of how we perceive the world. For one thing, smell is the strongest trigger of memory and is therefore also something that helps cement experiences as real.

Generating smells is pretty hard. We don’t have the technology to synthesize whatever chemical we need to produce a given smell. So olfactory VR attachments have a limited palette of odors. The most well-known commercial product is the FeelReal scent mask, which reached its crowdfunding goal at the start of 2019. This device attaches to the bottom of existing VR headsets and covers your nose. As VR tech goes, this is pretty niche, but in the future we may have devices that can simulate a wide variety of smells. Maybe the smell of blood will make people less likely to shoot the enemy in VR. You know what – I think I’d turn that off in the settings.