Recent advances show that “technologies of touch” are on the cusp of major breakthroughs. Could virtual reality prove the fillip that haptics needs?
“Haptics”. To the uninitiated, the very word sounds like something from a novel by cyberpunk doyen William Gibson. (“They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him”, runs the first sentence in his recent book The Peripheral).
The word stems from the Greek haptikós “to grasp or perceive,” and technologies that emulate physical sensations – from tactile touchscreens on the latest smartphones to envisioned full body VR suits with hundreds of haptic points – are big news.
They are also big business. As virtual reality (VR) grows into an estimated $7.9 billion market in 2018 – one that is expected to reach $34 billion by 2023 – many investors believe that the ability to touch and experience (as well as see) virtual worlds will transform the sector.
“Weird and Promising Fruit”
Microsoft Research Labs is at the forefront of developments in the sector. Its latest haptics controller research, revealed last week, showed that haptics is beginning to bear what industry expert Professor David Parisi, dubs “weird and promising fruit”.
In one, a hand-held haptic controller dubbed “CLAW” enables users to feel the texture of virtual objects under their fingertips, as well as grasp them – with the resistance of the object realistically rendered. (Video in the above link).
In the second, “Canetroller”, a haptic cane controller simulates white cane interactions, enabling people with visual impairments to navigate a virtual environment. In the third, “Haptic Revolver” a wheel-based hand controller allows users to engage with virtual surfaces, again, allowing the holder to clearly feel what’s under their fingers.
Microsoft’s Haptic Links, meanwhile, allows users to experience variable degrees of stiffness between two handheld commercial VR controllers. (Think the ability to experience tension on an archer’s bow, or on the slide of a trombone; even turn a wrench on a virtual pipe.)
Hold on to your Haptic Horses?
David Parisi, an Associate Professor at the College of Charleston, is the author of the recently published book “Archaeologies of Touch”, which explores advances in haptics.
He told Computer Business Review: “The commercial success of VR reality platforms like the Vive and the Oculus Rift is driving a resurgence of financial and intellectual investment in haptics and there is some promising research going on. There have been numerous hype cycles over the past 20 years though, and it can be tricky to tell whether we are on the cusp of major advances or just another hype cycle.”
He added: “One of the biggest challenges in haptifying virtual worlds is that each new device is intended for a specific set of tasks and applications. Each application needs its own dedicated set of coding standards and practices in order to tell it how to render haptic sensations. Ultimately, we may see one haptic interface emerging victorious from among various competing designs, but we are some way from that yet. More broadly though, haptics technology is already everywhere, once you start looking for it; think rumble motors: there are over one billion haptics-enabled gaming console controllers in circulation.”
“The Biggest Evolution since the GUI”
Several commercial pioneers are busy trying to take it to the next level. The Kickstarter-funded Teslasuit, for example, uses neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), to transmit sensations directly to the wearers body via electric pulses.
The suit, which looks like the sort of thing you might don to go skiing in the VR Alps, has 46 different haptic points, with motion capture and positioning systems, climate control and is multi-player enabled. You can even put it in the washing machine (no hotter than 30o please).
“Feel a wide range of sensations across your whole body whether the soft touch of warm rain, a heavy impact or even the freezing cold”, runs the blurb. The UK-based company recently partnered with Russian-based Octobox Interactive on its game High Noon VR and continues to work on rallying developer support for its software development kit.
David Birnbaum, director of UX design at San Jose-based sensory technology pioneers Immersion, told Computer Business Review: “Haptic technology is the biggest evolution in human computer interaction since the GUI. Touch is the missing element from almost all our digital advances. Microprocessors, display, and graphics enjoyed an enormous amount of investment and mindshare. But haptics will change everything.”
He added: “It has been a dark horse, but not for much longer, and when it is more broadly understood and used by designers and developers, it will place them in a small but powerful group of professionals who can think multi-modally when it comes to product design.”
The Future’s in Touching Distance
‘Shaun Beaney chairs the Access to Finance working group of Immerse UK (a new cross-sector UK network for businesses and research organisations interested in augmented and virtual reality). He recently chaired a roundtable, which he organised with Fiona Kilkelly of Immerse UK and Robert Whitby-Smith of Albion Capital, that brought together start-up funds, private investors, venture capitalists (VCs), entrepreneurs and technologists to discuss deal trends in early-stage immersive companies.’
As he puts it in a recent blog: “Scepticism about consumer-facing VR and AR amongst some VCs might be overcome rapidly if there were there were a transformative change in the market, especially when we bear in mind that the likes of Magic Leap has already raised $2.3 billion of investment… that could help to bring about such a change.”
Magic Leap, a start-up working in the augmented reality space, has been holding its cards close to its chest amid widespread investor excitement in its offering. The company readies to ship in 2018 its debut product, “Magic Leap One, Creator Edition”, an AR headset built for developers. With the fate of haptics seemingly closely tied to that of VR, those working in the former will be watching closely.
As Professor Parisi puts it: “Research into haptic human/computer-interfaces began in the late 1960s and there have been plenty of commercial failures along the way, most because they could only replicate a small subset of haptic sensations. Touch clearly adds a vital and absent dimension to VR that has immense potential to transform the way we experience virtual worlds though; we might be on the cusp of VR becoming haptic.”