Last year’s hit VR movie Ready Player One featured some fantastic future dream tech, from omni-directional treadmills that you can set up in your front room to a sprawling virtual world called The Oasis that everyone unashamedly prefers to the real one.
But one thing that plays a big part in Ernest Cline’s sci-fi story that’s fast becoming a reality is haptic technology. That’s the full body suits and gloves that characters in the movie wear in order to ‘feel’ what’s going on in The Oasis, like taking a hit during a battle, feeling the icy cold temperature of the snow and, of course, the pressure, heat and pleasure of sexual contact.
Although a number of companies have been developing haptic technology to bring touch sensations to us all for decades now, there were plenty to get excited about at CES 2019.
Announcements and product demonstrations from both Teslasuit and Razer signal that soon technology that allows us to touch virtual worlds and feel our favourite games might soon become more of a reality for us all than dizzyingly expensive prototypes and sci-fi pipe dreams.
What’s haptic technology?
For those who haven’t yet been bombarded with one of the biggest buzzwords of CES, haptics originally comes from the Greek word haptesthai, which means ‘to touch’. In tech terms, it’s used to describe displays, interfaces and other materials that - once you’ve tapped, touched and grabbed them - deliver a physical feeling back to you. That’s what’s called haptic feedback or force feedback.
This feedback can feel like all kinds of things, from a small vibration when you win a medal in a game or bump into a tree in a virtual world or the pressure of pushing open a heavy doorway when you’re exploring a fantasy world or the subtle feel of someone’s skin against yours in a virtual social space. Haptic technology is all about making something that’s not real feel really, really real.
This kind of tech is already being used in some VR games, at theme parks and to add a layer of scary realism to flight simulators. But most of us have probably only experienced it on a small scale, like the vibration when you press the Home button on a smartphone or the rumble feature on your games console.
When it comes to the tech involved, haptic displays generally consist of sensors and actuators - although there are more parts depending on the kind of device we’re talking about. Sensors can sense the haptic information that’s being exerted, which are read and sent to a rendering module. The actuator then reads the haptic data and transforms it into something we can perceive, like a vibration or other kind of force. It can then be delivered in a number of ways, through screens, buttons, suits, joysticks, gloves and more.
It makes sense that haptic technology is important right now. So far gaming and VR technology has been giving us excellent visual and audio experiences thanks to advances in computer processing power, graphics, video and display technologies. So if a full, sensory experience is the goal to enhance our enjoyment and sense of immersion, then touch would be the logical next step to focus on.
Research suggests that we read touch information much faster than our vision, which means adding this kind of feedback to gaming, training and medical procedures is important. It can also better convince us that what we’re experiencing is real. In a 2010 study, researchers found that synchrony between touch, visual information and movement could induce a believable illusion that people felt they had full ownership of a virtual arm.
The haptic technology from CES 2019
Although there have been some good examples of haptic technology created over the past few decades, at CES 2019 some of the announcements and products on display pointed to a possible turning point that might be just what we need to bring haptics to more people.
Getting to grips with VR: Teslasuit
The suit mimics sensations you see in virtual reality and can provide all kinds of haptic feedback, like shocks, bumps and pressure thanks to 68 channels embedded into the suit that deliver the right electrical simulations.
To make the experience even more realistic, the Teslasuit also has 11 motion capture sensors and an avatar system. This means it knows how you’re moving and can change the display in-game accordingly, allowing you to better interact with virtual environments.
There’s also climate control built-in to the suit, which can change temperatures in near real-time. This means if you’re in a cold and snowy setting in a VR environment, the Teslasuit will adapt so your skin feels cooler to mimic the conditions.
Finally, there’s a biometric feedback system, which will use machine learning to analyse data about your heart rate and other stats in order to create a better experience - one that’s personalised to you and your body. This means games might up the ante if you’re not feeling excited or scared enough - or calm the action to give you more of a shock afterwards.
Of course it’s up to games developers to figure out how they want to use the Teslasuit to build better experiences. All of the features above, combined with the haptic feedback, could certainly be used to build a realistic experience that’s capable of mimicking all kinds of environments.
Getting to grips with gaming: Razer
Haptic technology presents lots of potential for the future of virtual reality, but it could also have a big impact on gaming experiences. You’ve likely experienced haptic feedback while you’ve been gaming and not realised it, like the rumble your games controller makes when you take a hit. That’s the same thing.
At CES, gaming company Razer revealed more about its vision for its haptic-enabled Hypersense technology. It plans on creating an ecosystem of haptic, connected peripherals designed to enhance your gaming experiences that may be just a concept for now - but could be on its way sooner than you think.
So far, Razer has revealed details of a palm rest that’s designed to sit below your keyboard as you play, a haptic-enabled mouse and a haptic chair, which could, literally, pack quite a punch. These could be added to Razer’s current Nari Ultimate headset, which already allows you to see, hear and feel actions around you.
Like the Teslasuit, developers will need to work to make the most of Razer’s Hypersense hardware if and when it’s officially released. The difference between Razer’s Hypersense technology and your regular, rumbling controller is that Razer’s haptics are ‘high definition’, which means they can provide a wider range of vibrations.
Only time will tell if developers want to invest time into working with Razer’s tech and gamers want to invest money in the new haptic peripherals. But it’s exciting to see that advancing touch technology doesn’t have to mean full-on body suits and adventures in virtual worlds. In the short term, Razer shows this tech could be used for vibrating headsets and keyboards instead that still deliver a damn good rumbling experience, but might be more accessible - and affordable - than a Teslasuit.
Feeling the future
Haptic technology isn’t new. But Teslasuit’s full body suit and combination of haptics, biometric feedback and motion capture sensors could bring about the super realistic future of virtual reality we’ve long dreamed about - and seen in the realm of sci-fi movies for some time.
But although gaming and VR entertainment experiences are the obvious application for this kind of touch tech, bringing us a sense of realism we’ve never experienced before, there are also many exciting non-entertainment applications.
Haptic technology is already being researched and trialled in all kinds of environments. For example, it can be used to train people in situations that it’s hard to prepare for, like medical procedures. But being able to pick up, hold and feel things could also allow astronauts who can’t access parts of a spacecraft, or those at nuclear power plants in dangerous situations, to control electronic interfaces at a distance.
And let’s not forget how important touch is to build a connection with others, which means haptic tech could also aid social interaction too, allowing you to feel what it’s like to hold hands or hug family members, friends and partners from a distance when you’re interacting with them via video calls or even a VR environment.
And that’s just the beginning. The potential of touch technology to add a more realistic experience to everything from virtual training to virtual sex and everything in-between is slowly being realised. Now we just need someone to create our very own version of The Oasis and we can wave goodbye to the real world for good.