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Forget VR Desktops – This Haptic Controller Could Create VR Desks

by Joe Durbin • March 22nd, 2016

Tactical Haptics is a company dedicated to creating increased touch immersion for VR experiences. The company was on hand at GDC 2016 to display the latest version of its prototype haptic controller. I had the chance to try the controller myself and one use-case in particular left me completely floored.

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The Tactical Haptics booth offered two demos – a gun battler and a Tiltbrush-esque art experience. The gun battler was fairly interesting but it was the last 30 seconds of the painting demo that sold me on the technology. At the end of the art experience a grid popped up in front of my face that resembled an artists easel.

I was instructed to try and push my hand through this grid. However, when the virtual cursor that represented my controller made contact with the grid I immediately stopped pushing. Somehow, this controller was feeding me the actual sensation of a canvas in front of me and my brain instinctively stopped.

I couldn’t believe how believable the sensation was. Sliding my hand provided the exact same type of resistance feedback I would expect from a pencil scratching on the legal pad on my desk. If I did push harder into the grid the boldness of my stroke increased. 

To be honest, the feelings provided by other stages of the company’s demos were interesting but not completely realistic. This digital easel however provided near one-to-one sensations of what I would feel from its real-world counterpart.

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The Tactical Haptics setup is a 3D printed, hand assembled rig with a holster on the back for a Vive controller. The Vive controller provides all the positional tracking which frees the TH device up to focus solely on “kinesthetic” feedback. Founder William Provancher explained exactly how his company’s device works:

“There is a new type of touch feedback tech built into this motion controller…It’s applying in-hand friction forces that mimic what you’d feel if you reached into a VR environment and grabbed that item yourself…Sliding plates on the surface of the device create this kinesthetic feedback. You, by holding onto the handle, become a grounded or opposing force to the plates…It turns out, when you’re grabbing onto an object there’s always these types of sheer forces and if you have enough actuators you can mimic these.”

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Provancher went on to detail that human touch is made up of two simple factors: kinesthetic and tactile. By providing the kinesthetic (skin manipulation and friction) his company’s controllers are able to trick the brain into filling in the tactile response on its own. The results of this, as I saw in the drawing pad demo, can be incredibly transformative and presence-inducing.

High-end VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive have all but cracked the codes on how to convince the mind it is present somewhere on a visual level, but what about the other senses? Audio gets a fair amount of attention from the VR space; smell has a few obscure scent towers and fan systems; taste is mercifully not a priority for developers just yet; and so it is the sense of touch that provides the most exciting growth opportunity near-term when it comes to increasing a sense of presence in VR.

According to Provancher, Tactical Haptics is currently working with a small group of early-stage developers to create more meaningful experiences for the system. They are targeting a wider developer release by the end of this summer and a full commercial release by Christmas of 2017. The intended price point for these controllers is $99 each and Provancher said they could work with Oculus Touch and PS VR as well once the correct harnesses can be built.