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What is STEM, and Why Should You Care?

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By Nelson Schneider - 10/13/13 at 02:22 PM CT

STEM has been in the news a lot lately. It seems that American students are shying away from studies in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. I’m not proud of the fact that I’m a part of this statistic, but when not everyone has an aptitude for those fields, and when given a choice between keeping a 3.8+ grade point average (and the accompanying scholarships) studying Humanities or washing out of one of the STEM fields, I think most people who value their tuition dollars would choose the sure bet. Indeed, the best way to encourage more prospective members of the American workforce to study STEM fields would be to remove the harsh penalty for failure: Tuition should be free.

What? Oh, we’re not talking about that STEM, but the similarly-named gaming product!

That’s right, the people at Sixense have decided to cut the ties that bind them to Razer and instead crowdfund their successor to the Razer Hydra with a Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter ended yesterday with $600,000 raised. While that may not seem like a lot when “AAA” videogame budgets regularly run into the tens of millions of dollars, that sum more than doubled Sixense’s funding goal of $250,000.

But what exactly is STEM, and why is it getting so little buzz in the gaming media? Well, it seems that the motion control fad has well and truly worn off, with the casual non-gamers who embraced it on the Wii moving on to embrace the touch control fad on their Facebook-and-Twitter Machines (read: smartphones). Coupled with the fact that most PC gamers scoff at control schemes as well-refined as an Xbox 360 controller in favor of a typewriter and a pointing device that still needs to be scooted around on a flat surface, it’s no wonder the Sixense STEM has flown under the radar. As a proponent of the Razer Hydra, I have been eagerly awaiting Sixense’s next, finally-wireless revision of their motion-tracking tech – and STEM is it.

As the Hydra’s successor, the Sixense STEM promises the same precise, drift-free motion-tracking as its predecessor, only now without wires and with a drastically increased range. These promises essentially vow to remove the glowing green orb and tangle of wires from my footstool and replace it with a base station that sits fixed in a safe location. No longer will Hydra owners need to worry about performing a motion too vigorously and pulling the entire device to the floor. The STEM’s two handheld wireless ‘nunchucks’ even closely resemble the Hydra’s, only with a bit more plastic casing. These ‘chucks will have a similarly excellent button layout to the Hydra (Valve, you should be paying attention to this!) and – get ready to have your mind blown – RUMBLE (a.k.a., ‘haptic feedback’).

Of course, the features I’ve mentioned are just the pedestrian uses of the STEM for current first-person and/or third-person games. What makes the STEM really intriguing is the fact that the ‘chucks are just shells that hold the actual STEM units. Indeed, the STEMs themselves are small modules that can be clipped into the ‘chucks OR clipped to a user’s wrists, ankles, and waist/head in order to provide 5-point motion tracking in virtual reality. Combining the excellent motion tracking Sixense is known for already with the optical immersion provided by the Oculus Rift, and even throwing in the ability to actually walk in virtual reality with the Virtuix Omni treadmill (another under-the-radar device that doesn’t seem to be generating much buzz), it seems that the next big innovation in gaming – far from the worn-out iterative improvements provided by more photorealistic graphic fidelity – will finally be the true kind of virtual reality that has been flaunted before us in science fiction movies for decades.

I constantly see PC gamers whining in gaming fora that the platform’s thunder has been stolen by consoles, with their huge sales numbers and a few big-name exclusives (timed or not). Instead of lamenting the fact that there are no PC exclusives that really push the envelope graphically, but instead a homogenized sea of multi-platform games that look practically identical, PC gamers should be rejoicing that their platform will be the first (though almost certainly not the last) to bring true virtual reality into our homes. All that power can finally be used for something more important than rendering the sweat dripping off of an athlete’s nose!

I may be old-school and curmudgeonly when it comes to my preference in games: I like my 2D platformers and top-town action/adventures, and I greatly prefer sprites and layering to polygons and texture mapping. But when it comes to modern games – and by ‘modern,’ I mean First-Person Shooters and Sandboxes – the lack of immersion and the constant feeling of fighting the controls instead of effortlessly using them to interact with the game still frustrates me. While I probably won’t be the first in line to play some poorly-made virtual reality shooter with $5,000 worth of electronics strapped to my body, the fact that this type of game is finally becoming an option is exciting nonetheless.

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