Virtual Reality Controllers: What Do They Do, and Are They Necessary?

When you buy your own virtual reality (VR) headset, it will come with controllers designed to work specifically with that model headset. These controllers are an integral part of the VR experience, as they make it easy for the system to determine where your hands are in relation to the headset and help to register hand and finger movements in a virtual environment.

Virtual reality with a controller differs from one system to the next, but at their core, they all come with a set of buttons, triggers, and often a thumbstick. These buttons allow you to grab and interact with things in the virtual world, from throwing a ball to pushing a button to holding and firing a gun. The controllers are designed to help create a more immersive and interactive experience by using either the Lighthouse tracking system (used by Valve Index and HTC Vive Pro), which uses two base systems that should be installed in your play area to use as a point of reference for the headset and controller, or an inside-out tracking system (used by the Oculus Quest 2), which uses infrared LEDs in the rings of the controller to triangulate the positions of the controllers in the virtual space. 


The benefit of the system the Oculus Quest 2 uses is that it makes VR with controllers cheap, so in the event that you have to replace a controller for any reason, you will pay less money to replace an Oculus controller as opposed to any other headset.

Can You Play VR Without a Controller?

It is possible to play games without a VR controller on several of the latest gaming systems, such as the Oculus Quest 2, which comes with native hand-tracking support. This means that the headset has cameras built into it that can detect a person’s natural gestures while they interact with the world. However, VR with controllers is still the norm and the best way to get a good experience in VR for most people. The Oculus has added a recent tracking rate update that increased it from 30 Hz to 60 Hz, but it is still far from perfect, and not all VR apps support hand controls.

Another controller-less option is the Leap Motion Controller. It provides an affordable option for a controller-less experience, at around $100, and through its use of two cameras and three infrared LEDs, it can map out your entire play space. This option can be used to enable hand-tracking in the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Valve Index, and some PC systems. Even still, like the Oculus Quest 2, this is still not a perfect option.

Despite all of the advancements in technology, VR with a controller is still the best option to get the best experience possible across systems, but with advances in technology coming rapidly, there’s always the possibility that in the future, VR controllers won’t be necessary at all.