With a swing of your arm, you drive the side of your mace into Alduin’s jaw and render his menacing dragon body lifeless. In your hands, the haptics in your controllers recoil and buzz. But in the game, your scaly trophy is bursting into a wave of light that knocks you backward.
Normally, you wouldn’t ever want to be caught in a blast of any sort. But VR puts you directly into your avatar’s shoes. After experiencing such an epic moment like that, it’s normal to wonder what your virtual self is feeling.
After all; the more you feel the way your avatar is supposed to feel, the more authentic the game feels.
The feedback you feel in your hands when you hit objects, such as the boxes in Beat Saber, the pads in BOXVR, or even the dragons in Skyrim, also tells your brain that VR is (at least partially) real.
But at this exact moment, current-gen VR systems like the Oculus Rift and the PSVR only offer out-of-the-box haptic controllers to place your hands into VR, and nothing else. Your arms and feet haven’t been formally invited to the party yet. Nor have your chest and shoulders.
Over time, however, the way you interface with VR will be expanded upon. How? Enter the world of additional haptics.
Why do haptics matter?
If you’re unaware of what haptics are, the word “haptic” is defined as “relating to or based on the sense of touch,” according to Merriam-Webster.
When referred to in the context of VR, a haptic device can be anything that tracks a part of your body inside VR and can also give you force feedback.
For example, if you had a haptic accessory that tracked your shoulders, you could more accurately slip punches in a boxing game like The Thrill of the Fight, or feel a friend wrapping their arm around you in a social environment like BigScreen.
This is because such an accessory would both indicate where your shoulders are in VR, and also buzz your shoulders with haptic feedback when they “feel” something.
It’s uncanny how close I’ve felt to other humans across the world in VR with existing, out-of-the-box 6DOF object tracking and haptic controllers. There’s something so cool about shaking another person’s hand in Rec Room, or feeling the resistance of a bowstring as I nock an arrow in it.
That said; the more places on your body that link you into a VR game, the more presence you’ll feel, and the more you’ll subjectively be “there”.
VR promises to offer unprecedented levels of immersion; after all, full-body immersion is its namesake. When you think of haptic feedback as being the cause of presence, then it’s natural to assume that VR is simply more immersive with more haptics.
Let’s use this scene from Ready Player One to illustrate the end-game for haptics in VR.
Why haven’t haptics become more commonplace?
An arms race (of sorts) is currently playing out between proprietary VR haptics developers. Basically, each of those devs is seeking to breach their own corner of the market.
Unfortunately, until one of those products absorbs most of the total market share, there will be a heavy malaise of userbase fragmentation.
Some startups may even cease to exist entirely, with no viable product to show for their time spent courting backers.
On top of that, proprietary haptics devices will be less available and less affordable than what comes out-of-the-box in a VR headset bundle. Thus, the broader VR userbase is thinking less about haptic accessories and more about standardized improvements, such as wider fields of view or eye-tracking.
Those features are hailed by VR experts such as Benjamin Lang (ala Road to VR) to arrive packaged-in with further iterations of first-party headsets—such as the coveted Oculus Rift CV2.
Long story short:
Only time can tell which haptic device(s) becomes the keystone companion product for first-party VR headset manufacturers (like Oculus or HTC) in the future.
But what’s in the works?
Basically, you can split “haptic devices” down to gloves and suits.
Note: The following firms are not the only players in the market. They are, however, decently represented in the media. Which means that they’re worth keeping an eye on.
Co-founded by former Cal Poly researchers Jake Rubin and Dr. Robert Crockett, HaptX gloves use tiny pockets of air in their fabric to simulate everything from the textile feel of objects in VR to what shape those objects are. The force-feedback haptics in the gloves restrain or even stop your hands from going through solid objects.
While this feature hasn’t been implemented into current HaptX prototype units, the company intends to use liquid to simulate temperature in each glove as well.
Keep in mind that HaptX is not aiming to play in the gaming market, and will most likely position itself for job training in dangerous fields such as military, law enforcement and medical. According to Engadget’s Nicole Lee, HaptX gloves provide a much more “real” experience than any other haptics she’s tried.
Introduced by the Plexus Immersive Corps, the Plexus glove set is slightly less ambitious than HaptX, but seems much more friendly with consumer devices such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
While not technically standalone gloves as they don’t contain their own tracking tech and require the presence of controllers (like Wands or Touch controllers) to help tell the headset where they are, the Plexus gloves do give you the complete maneuverability of your hands in VR.
Take note that in their current developer edition, haptics have not been implemented in any Plexus gloves. The reason I’ve placed Plexus on this list is the rumor that force-feedback will be added in a later model.
The Tesla Suit aims to cover your entire body in machine-washable “smart fabric”, which can do insane things like change temperature or shock your skin.
It’s capable of force-feedback as well, creating resistance whenever you shoot a gun or collide with a hard object in a game.
It’s slated to come with compatibility with Windows, Linux, and Mac operating systems at release, with an SDK that can be plugged into any major engine for maximum compatibility with games and apps. It also processes everything internally, meaning that the CPU running your game won’t be loaded with extra work.
The bHaptics vest goes over your upper body like the Hardlight suit, with the intention of being easy to put on and take off.
To create the force-feedback in its haptics, the vest contains 40 circular motors that can be individually assigned to activate when an event occurs.
While the vest is nice on its own, you can get “sleeves” and even a face-pad for additional haptic impact. Stuart Burmeister at bHaptics even claims that the company is working with developers to create audio-driven haptic feedback for certain games.
Full-body haptics will bring fitness benefits, without a doubt, as you’ll be responding to more direct resistance from VR games and—most likely—spending more time inside of them as well.
That said, going through these up-and-coming additions to the VR technology pool gets me genuinely excited for what the next generation may bring.
And, while most of these haptics products are difficult—if not impossible—to pin down for consumers at the moment, it won’t be more than a few years until haptics start proliferating consumer VR in a big way.
The question is, which one do you want the most?