Axon VR. PICTURED: AxonVR's HaptX Skeleton applies "force feedback" to represent the shape or weight of virtual objects.
Ever since his school days on Mercer Island, Jake Rubin has dreamed of creating a holodeck like the one on the Star Trek television series — a virtual reality experience so immersive that it is perceived as real.
Four and half years ago, Rubin dropped out of Washington University in St. Louis so he could put the money he’d saved for college to work building that dream. And this year, his Seattle-based company, AxonVR, expects to ship its first product, which is rumored to be a glove that allows users not only to manipulate objects, but also feel them.
“We have developed the core technologies required to make our vision a reality,” says Rubin, though he adds that it will take two to three years of further development to bring those technologies together to deliver a full-body VR experience.
The core technologies Rubin refers to are HaptX and HaptX Skeleton. HaptX is a thin, flexible material with an embedded net of “microfluidic actuators,” tiny devices that can be programmed to deliver both physical pressure and varying temperatures. Wearing a glove made of HaptX, a user could, for example, feel the shape and weight of a virtual snowball as well as its coldness.
The HaptX Skeleton, which is in prototype stage, is a suspended exoskeleton that allows the user to move in nearly every direction with full range of motion. In addition, it offers force feedback so one feels, say, pressure on the bottom of the foot when walking or the sudden resistance when one chops wood with a virtual ax. “You can run, you can jump, you can climb, you can cartwheel,” says Rubin. “You can reach out and touch virtual objects and feel their size, their shape, their temperature. That’s our long-term vision, which is nothing less than building a holodeck.”
“Within two to three years, we expect this all to come together to become a full-body experience,” says Rubin. “In the near term, we do have some smaller-scope products that we are developing in cooperation with some Fortune 500 companies. We do expect to be shipping products next year. I can’t talk in detail about those products.”
Although rubin is only 25, his path to developing haptic VR devices has already been a long one. “When I was in high school, I started to read literature and play with the idea of how you actually would build a system like this,” he explains. At first, he thought the answer was a direct brain-computer interface. That led him to Washington University to study biomedical engineering. His studies soon convinced him that such a connection was “just not going to be a practical way to achieve my vision.”
As Rubin saw the rapid progress in development of VR headsets, he turned his attention to delivering what he decided was a missing piece of the VR puzzle — touch. “The audiovisual pieces of the puzzle had been pretty well taken care of,” he notes. “Smell and taste, those are things that are not really essential for immersive experience. That left touch, which is something that no one had come up with a good solution for.”
After more research, Rubin thought he had some good ideas about how to create a touch-sensitive, or haptic, experience. At that point, he says, “I realized I needed to reach out to someone with engineering chops to help make my vision reality, to bring it to life.”
Rubin made a pitch to Robert Crockett, chair of the biomedical engineering department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Crockett was convinced Rubin was on to something and the two founded AxonVR in February 2012.
Rubin believes AxonVR’s initial primary markets will be entertainment enterprises, including theme parks and arcades, as well as military, medical and industrial organizations using the technologies for training simulations and in manufacturing for prototyping products.
But Rubin says the company is also intent on bringing costs down sufficiently to reach consumer markets.
Jake Rubin wants AxonVR to build a product that lets customers "reach out and touch virtual objects and feel their size, their shape,their temperature."
From its initial launch in 2012, AxonVR has grown to 30 employees, with eight employees at the Seattle headquarters and 21 software and hardware engineers working at the firm’s lab in San Luis Obispo.
In December, AxonVR announced it had secured $5.8 million in seed funding, which the company says is the largest investment to date in a virtual reality haptics company. The round was led by NetEase, an internet technology company in China, and Dawn Patrol Ventures, a Los Angeles VC firm managed by Amit Kapur and backed by AOL and Verizon. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo also participated in the round.
AxonVR does have some competitors developing haptic VR technologies, though the only product that has gone public offers much less resolution. Gloveone, a haptic glove made by NeuroDigital Technologies, has only 10 actuators in the fingers and palm.
“There are a lot of companies doing so-called symbolic haptics but we haven’t seen anyone doing haptics anywhere near as realistic as ours,” says Joe Michaels, AxonVR’s chief revenue officer.
Rubin says the team had three questions when it started out: Could the technologies be created at all? If so, could they be created in a reasonable time frame? The answer to those two questions was, he says, “a resounding yes.” The final question was whether the technologies could be produced at a price to be made available to a broad consumer market.
“We’re still working on that,” says Rubin.