Honest to goodness, the one thing that really needs drastic improvement is haptics. It’s a big challenge that effective force-feedback needs a solid base like a table or a wall because the sensation of resistance is everything. To date, our favorite consumer-grade haptics device is the Novint Falcon. Placed on a table and held with your fist or by a gun mount, its internal motors accurately recreated physical textures like ice and sticky goo or slapped your hand back as your gun or weapon went off. Every nuance was easily recreated or imagined (for weapons or tools that don’t exist in real life). It’s frustrating that the company went belly-up shortly after we reviewed their product and I was left personally hooked.
A Novint Falcon recreation might do ok for a seated VR experience (though that too would have limitations), effective haptics need to be a lot more mobile to be both convincing and compatible with modern virtual reality.
Fortunately, we are starting to see new interest in haptics.
A team at the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) lab at Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute have developed a prototype they call “Impacto”. Demonstrated on an arm, it works by stimulating a contact point with a vibration, and also stimulating the muscle with an electric pulse. The closest comparable would be an electric muscle stimulator (think “Dr. Ho”). In this case, the goal is to force your muscles to contract so your limbs will bend at the right time. The above shows the Impacto forcing your arms to react by forcing the muscle to contract (“Stop punching yourself! Why are you punching yourself?!? Stop Punching Yourself!”).
Tesla Studios is promising a Tesla Suit that lets you feel tactile feedback and temperature change. It also includes motion capture where needed. According to their website, this is a module-based suit that is customized according to what you need. While the haptics work by stimulating muscle groups with electric pulses, the other features are not well explained. They most recently did a PR stint of transmitting a hug from one user to another which is a bit too lovey dovey for my tastes. For a real haptics test, I want to see the users getting slapped around a little or maybe having things drawn on one user’s back and seeing if the other could identify it. Maybe my expectations are too high; I just think that feeling texture and force is everything. The Tesla Suit is gearing up for a Kickstarter.
In any case, what’s good to see is haptics are beginning to be taken seriously again. Let’s see where things go!