Touch is the first sensation animals develop whilst in the fetus. Human babies have been observed to have enormous difficulty surviving if they do not possess a sense of touch, even if they retain sight and hearing. Much like human babies, VR is in a state of infancy, and it desperately needs more senses added to the mix in order for the industry to survive. Haptics (or general “touch” sensation) will be what takes VR from a niche/hobbyist interest into becoming the next paradigm for all human communications.
What Are Haptics?
Haptic communication is a branch of nonverbal communication that refers to the ways in which people and animals communicate & interact via the sense of touch. More directly related to VR, Haptics (pronounced HAP-tiks) refers to the science of applying touch (tactile) sensations and controls to interaction with computer applications. Haptics offers an extra dimension to a VR or 3D environment and is essential to the feeling of true immersion in those environments, and are most commonly found in uses of Vibration, or Electrostatic Shock in contact with the skin.
By using external devices (specially developed Gloves, Shoes, Joysticks, etc), users can receive feedback from computer applications with physical sensations in the hand or other parts of the body. Although you might not have realized it, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered haptic technology in your daily life. Most smartphones with touch screens use vibration as a form of output. Unlike keys on a keypad that have a texture and shape, touchscreens are just flat plates of glass. The buttons that appear on them are virtual ones with no “click”, so the vibration function of the phone is used to simulate the tactile feel of buttons. Those same vibrations can be used to convey information. For example, the iPhone 6s 3D Touch System is entirely based on haptic feedback.
Haptic technology is essential for higher quality experiences in VR and can be applied to anything from training surgeons to developing more accurate virtual baseball games. For example, playing tennis with someone in VR would be improved via haptics by allowing the both of you to not only see the moving ball, but by using the haptic device, position and swing your tennis racket and actually feel the impact of the ball as you serve. Haptic devices will allow users to bring more than just their eyes into their virtual world of choice, and perhaps add more potential to Augmented Reality applications as well.
Haptics Are Important
Most fans of Virtual Reality will say the sci-fi novel “Ready Player One” is the defining seminal piece of modern VR. In this story, the main character is set in a virtual reality simulator known as the OASIS, and to access this simulator, he uses a headset alongside a special set of gloves to maneuver around the virtual world. In addition to the gloves, there are a lot of future concept products like towers that emit smells from the VR world, andWind/Temperature generators that mimic real-life, making the illusion of immersion that much easier to access.
When it comes to full immersion, there can be no gaps. With Virtual Reality trying to be the next great computing platform, bringing the entire body into VR will be essential to bridging the gap that current users face. As much as we’d like to think, looking around while sitting in a chair doesn’t actuallyfeel like you’re there experiencing something. We only have 2 out of 5 senses catered to right now, Hearing & Sight, with the final 3 still up for grabs (Touch, Smell, and Taste)
Achieving true full touch simulation is not as simple as one might think at first, however. Humans, as visually-centered creatures, often don’t stop to consider how incredible our sense of touch really is. Our sense of touch comes from a combination of various different organs. With our hands, we can determine everything about an object we could using sight (minus its color or visual patterns) and also determine things that we can’t see with our eyes. Using our hands, We determine hardness, shape, temperature, texture and weight by handling something. These advanced sensory abilities are what let you find something in your bag amongst other random clutter without looking.
While some of this sounds far off and hard to engineer, we’re actually a lot closer than most realize. There are plenty of 3rd party companies developing products to be used with popular systems like the Oculus Rift & HTC Vive. But without industry standards, a lot of them have either failed on launch or leave a lot to be desired.
Currently, most VR users are using Touch Controllers. Simple wand-based devices with a few buttons & motion tracking implemented, and a couple joysticks to make the transition a little easier. These get us by for the time being but are severely lacking when it comes to more diverse applications that require more than just a point-to-play style.
Smaller startups such as VRGluv and Noitom are trying to become the first in terms of mainstream Virtual Reality Data Gloves, using pre-existing tracking systems to bring users hands into the digital world. But without clear understandings & standards for haptic systems, we haven’t seen any notable implementations, and might be far off still until we do. As simple and small as it sounds, wiggling your fingers (and accurately tracking them in VR) is one of the biggest pain points in VR development, and is stunting the growth of the industry overall.
The Future of Haptics
In a galaxy not so far away, a child loads up his favorite Simulator program for school. He puts on his standard issue headset, and don his VR gloves, backpack, and shoes. Instantly, he’s transported into a new world of color, walking around and talking to other people within this virtual world just as he normally would on the street. There is nothing missing from this world, and everything he could do while outside in “real-life” is mimicked easily here, even enhanced. He can run twice his normal speed, jump 10x as high, and throw a football a mile away without breaking a sweat. The future of Virtual Reality isn’t just in gaming & movies, it’s integrated into the entire human experience. Education, Training, Entertainment and Casual Experiences can and will be ported into the digital world, and will allow more and more people to experience things they otherwise never would have. The gap physical between 3rd world countries and superpowers like China or the USA will matter less and less, since anyone with the right amount of cash and time will be able to access the same digital resources available to everyone else in the VR world.
Living our entire lives within a simulation might seem crazy to some right now, but is it really that hard to imagine when Americans already spend more than 10 hours a day staring at screens anyway? The future of Humanity is a strange, blurred line between near-masochistic levels of isolation, and a degree of hyperconnectivity that our species has never experienced before. The future of Haptics may not even be in external devices, but maybe implants that feed sensory information directly into your nervous system. This type of digital reality is coined Full Immersion, and it will be 100% indistinguishable from physical “reality”.
We’ll leave it on the question Morpheus asked over 18 years ago: “Have you ever had a dream, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”