One of the biggest questions about virtual reality is how users will interact with it. Oculus thinks that its hand and finger tracking controllers, the Oculus Touch, is the answer. Valve and HTC think their hand tracking wands are so crucial to the virtual reality experience, they're packing them in with the Vive headset.
According to documents recently published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Sony, which will release the PlayStation VR headset later this year, is considering a different solution: Minority Report-style glove controllers.
The three notable patent applications, all filed in 2014, deal with how to render "body part" movement on a head-mounted display. In other words, how to translate using your hands when you can't physically see them because of the screen strapped to your face. The "Glove Interface Object" marks the difference between simply viewing virtual reality and actually interacting with it.
Essentially, the patents combined describe a glove filled to the brim with sensors and tracked by a camera as well the system that translates those movements to what you see on the display. The glove features flex sensors down each finger to keep track of precise movement, pressure sensors to measure the amount of force applied by any given user, and more.
So, for example, the glove would be able to approximate someone grabbing a doorknob, twisting it, and pushing it open in such a way that someone using a virtual reality headset would see all of it happening with the appropriate movements and physics as what they're doing with their hands. The current demos for PlayStation VR accomplish this with Sony's Move controllers, but the described glove system would provide much more detailed information to track things like hand gestures and force rather than simply the movement of what is a glorified stick with a lit ball on the end.
While all of this is ostensibly built to make use of Sony's PlayStation VR, the company's entry to the ongoing virtual reality race with the likes of Oculus, when it comes to games, the description makes it clear that Sony isn't just aiming for the gaming section of its audience. Here's the relevant bit from the patent application that makes all this a little more Minority Report and a little less Power Glove:
"As used herein, a glove interface object may be utilized as a glove controller for a video game. However, it should be understood that the glove interface object does not necessarily have to be a controller utilized for playing games, but may be used for interfacing with virtual objects on a display screen viewable by a user, and for any other suitable purpose for which input defined from the glove interface object may be applied."
While all this sounds relatively exciting, it's worth mentioning that patent applications, and by extension approved patents, don't always equate to consumer-facing products. For example, Sony filed several different patents regarding upgraded versions of their PlayStation Move motion controller stretching back several years that never materialized into physical products. There's the touch-sensitive controller patent, and the modular controller patent, and likely more that just didn't happen.
But if the glove does actually come to fruition, we can all look forward to being Tom Cruise in the future.