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Haptics: the next big thing for virtual reality?

GloveOne haptics haptic glove virtual reality

What are haptics?

Have you ever felt a mild vibration when your smartphone sent you an alert or notification? If so, you’ve already been exposed to haptics.  Haptics, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, means

Of or relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception (in case you’re wondering, proprioception is your ability to receive sensory information based on your movement, position, and equilibrium)

Haptics have been around for quite a while. Even before our smartphones incorporated haptic technology, it was part of some of the most popular video game controllers on the market. You may remember the Rumble Pak, which was released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64 controller. This pioneering haptic device vibrated whenever there was an event in the game like an explosion or if you received some damage.  Even some computer keyboards offer haptic feedback. Rather than simply seeing what’s taking place on the screen, you also receive feedback through your fingers from a haptic keyboard. The feedback usually takes the form of a vibration.

The Nintendo 64 was the first video game controller to give you haptic feedback during gameplay according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Nintendo 64 was the first video game controller to give you haptic feedback during gameplay according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Haptics: Why do we need them?

The key to the broad success of virtual reality is a great and immersive virtual experience. Many have declared virtual reality goggles like the Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear to be the future of virtual reality – and these pioneering vr devices certainly are – but the fact is that they are primarily visual and audio devices that sit on our head.

Today, virtual reality headsets primarily use sight and sound to pull us into virtual reality. These perform incredibly well, but naturally lack the ability to replicate the complete sensory experience that we experience in ‘real life’. For this we need more advanced virtual reality devices to allow us to achieve a full sense of presence. This is especially true if we are to fully integrate with and ‘feel’ our virtual avatar(s).

What is missing is something very important: a haptic response, the feeling that we are actually playing what we are watching on screen.

Haptics help deliver Immersion

So deep is the virtual experience that many people feel a desire to touch and feel the things they see during their trip. Virtual reality needs to deliver more, which is why we are seeing the emergence of projects such as omnidirectional treadmills (like the Cyberith Virtualizer), haptic gloves and body sensors. Touch (or lack thereof) is one of the major barriers to overcome. We can hold all sorts of objects in a virtual environment, but our hands never receive any answer unless a virtual reality device intervenes.

With haptics, you can expand your multi-sensory experience to include sight, sound and touch for a much more compelling and convincing experience. Haptics offer the excitement and information you get from real-time feedback from touch.

Haptics combined with the VR headset, surround sound effects and a omnidirectional treadmill would blow you away – it would be a completely immersive experience!

Haptics - GloveOne haptic gloves
Haptics – GloveOne haptic gloves

Some Haptic peripherals

Haptic devices for virtual reality vary depending on for the type of experience for which they are designed. To date we are accustomed to using a simple joystick in most cases, a steering wheel or another system.  Here are some haptic systems peripherals available or in development:

  • Haptic gloves such as the ones by NeuroDigital Technologies‘ Glove One and Rice University’s Omni Hands
  • Haptic holograms such as those powered by Ultrahaptic’s system
  • Haptic steering wheels
  • Haptic vests like Immerz’s KOR-FX

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