Haptics Advances Take Gaming One Step Closer To Full Immersion

on Thursday, Jun. 27th

At last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo I got an early look at new haptics–aka force feedback–technology from the company Artificial Muscle.

Selling under the name ViviTouch, the first devices to use the new tech will be headphones aimed primarily at the gaming market, starting with the F.R.E.Q. 4D by peripheral manufacturer MadCatz.

Headphones that have an extra kick in the bass line are just the starting point for the Artificial Muscle, a subsidiary of Bayer MaterialScience, and I followed up with another talk with CEO Dirk Schapeler at their booth on the show floor.

Once again I walked away humming with the possibilities that are just over the horizon

"We have developed a small actuator that is half the size of a fingertip and we integrated it into the top of a joystick," Schapeler told me in advance of a hands-on demo, "or on the trigger buttons or on certain locations on the game controller. You can control these locations individually, which means that you can generate directional haptics with it."

What this means is that a fine-tuned waveform can be translated into feedback at various points along the controller, even in the tips of the thumb-sticks that are used on gamepads to guide characters through game worlds.

This is a step above even the advances on display in the new controllers from the major console manufacturers. Microsoft's Xbox One controller has feedback in the triggers and body, which allowed for sensations like heartbeats and engine revving to be brought to bear. The doctored controller I got to handle in the ViviTouch booth covered all those bases and added in the thumb-sticks.

What's striking is that the material the company is using is small enough that it can be put in just about anything at this point.

Beyond Gaming

Miniaturization means that the technology powering the bass-thumping headphones will make its way soon into hearing aids, providing a better experience for those with hearing loss. It also means a brand new category is opening up.

"I'm excited about whole space of wearable devices," said the CEO, who was sporting a Nike Fuelband on his left wrist. "Equipping these kinds of things with haptics that give you directional cues. You walk around in a city, you have your phone in your pocket. You don't want to walk around like a zombie looking at your small screen, you actually get the haptic cues through your wristband, through another device that you wear somewhere else on our body."

Not that he's talking specifics.

"I can't disclose in which direction this is going, but there's going to be some really exciting stuff where we can leverage this haptic feedback technology for wearable devices."

Comparing notes on the Oculus Rift

Those wearable devices may one day include immersion rigs for gaming. Just a few hours before talking with Schapeler I was able to

strap on an Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that set tongues wagging at this year's show.

Schapeler had the honor of using one at an earlier expo, the NeuroGaming Conference in San Francisco. There he was able to use a Rift with a controller set-up–likely the Razer Hydra–that tracks hand movement.

"When you picked up something it was so real, except that you couldn't feel. They didn't even have simple haptics in it. It's almost disturbing. In a normal game it's like a 2D kind of thing, you can make the transition in your brain; but when everything is simulating an environment, and you don't have the feel? It's really missing."

The kind of feedback that the ViviTouch technology can generate could be the missing piece of the immersion puzzle. There is, however, a "chicken and the egg" problem: until peripheral manufacturers put the technology into controllers and other interfaces game developers are reluctant to commit to spending resources on designing the experiences.

Someone is going to have to make a leap of faith to bring the wilder virtual reality possibilities home.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)


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