Today’s virtual reality product landscape has come to resemble something of a Wild West show, with steely eyed robber barons jockeying for position against basement cowboys and almost anyone with aspirations of tech glory. The results have ranged from the deeply ludicrous to the truly inspired. As we step into the uncertain landscape of 2017, we look back on the strides taken towards immersive VR and see if we can’t catch the scent of where things are headed in the year ahead.
Since the dawn of virtual reality, there have been those who dreamed of something grander. Call it virtual reality on steroids, the Matrix, or simply Reality 2.0. Whatever moniker you prefer, the idea is the same — to take VR beyond the headset and inject the entire human sensorium into a virtual world. The industry term most often mentioned in this regard is haptics and relates to the sense of touch. You could even say the sense of touch is even more essential to immersive VR than sound. Plenty of folks get by in life without the aid of their ears, but few can manage without the sense of touch.
Late in 2014, ExtremeTech reported on one of the early devices to make a splash in VR haptics – an ultrasonic haptic interface created at the University of Bristol. The technology promised to use ultrasound to create invisible 3D objects that could be felt, but not seen. While certainly headline grabbing, several hurdles augur against ultrasonic haptic ever becoming mainstream — not the least which seems to be that it just doesn’t work that well. ExtremeTech’s David Cardinal had a chance to test the device at CES and reported that the sense of touch produced by the speaker array used in Bristol style interface was far from convincing.
What’s more, it’s problematic to see how one could ever position enough ultrasonic speakers to allow touching objects in 360 degrees. Most of the demos of ultrasonic haptics feature a small array of speakers the size of a couple table napkins, positioned directly in front of the user. What happens when you want to touch something behind, beneath, or on top of you? This question was never answered sufficiently to convince me that ultrasonic haptics will ever deliver the kind of sensation required to really be commercially successful. So while ultrasonic haptics may yet become a staple of magic shows and sketchy psychic parlors, I wouldn’t hold my breath for such a rig to appear on the shelves at Best Buy any time soon.
Artists rendering of the Teslasuit, a full body haptic solution. Image credit: Teslasuit
Of far greater promise is the haptic body suit. Already several commercial players have established a beach head in this nascent field, including AxonVR and Teslasuit. While similar in appearance, haptic body suits can vary widely in the mechanism for delivering the sensation of touch. The Teslasuit resembles a kind of fortified ski garment, and is surprisingly elegant for being the brain child of a Kickstarter team. To provide the hallmark sensation of touch the unit uses neuromuscular stimulation, the same mild localized electric shocks found in abdominal building devices and physical therapy TENS units. The suit is laced with thin electrically conducting fabric that delivers mild stimulation to necessary body regions when simulating touch in a virtual world.
One of the challenges Teslasuit faces is rallying enough developer support around its Software Development Kit to provide meaningful applications for its garment. Like so many gadgets of promise, unless there is sufficient software in the wild making use of the new tech, the fruit is likely to wither upon the vine.
The HaptX Exoskeleton aims to provide users with a fully immersive VR experience. Image credit: AxonVR
The Teslasuit’s major competition comes from a hungry little startup called AxonVR, whose 25 year old founder Jake Rubin states his goal as making virtual reality indistinguishable from reality. This is clearly big talk from a small shop, but having recently received a windfall of $5 million in seed funding, AxonVR will have a chance to prove it can run with the big dogs. Unlike the Teslasuit, the AxonVR haptic body suit uses miniature pneumatic actuators to provide the sensation of touch across the body. While heavier as a result, the AxonVR suit can deliver more distinct types of sensation. It does so by separating the feeling of touch into two types, cutaneous touch and force feedback. Cutaneous touch consists of localized sensations upon the skin, such as warmth and cold. In the AxonVR system, this is provided through a skintight HaptX garment.
For force feedback, AxonVR takes things a step further. Using a HaptX exoskeleton, it aims to provide the more forceful sensations of touch that come with say, walking up a flight of stairs or pushing against a large heavy object. To provide such sensation, the simple electrical stimulation of the kind found in the Teslasuit falls well short of the goal. For such situations, much stronger forces are needed, the kind found in pneumatic actuators of the type that power the Phoenix SuitX’s industrial and medical exoskeleton used to help paralyzed individuals regain mobility.
Far from being just another take on the haptic bodysuit, the HaptX exoskeleton could be the most ambitious VR device presently in the works. Resembling a giant robotic arm from which a person dangles in space, the exoskeleton enables a person to traverse VR worlds in a manner similar to the ungainly hamster ball rigs and omnidirectional treadmills created for the same purpose. On paper at least, it’s an inspired two-in-one solution that solves both the issue of force feedback and the issue of locomotion in one blow. This makes it my choice for the most groundbreaking immersive VR development of 2016, and the one we are most likely to be remember in the years ahead. Even if AxonVR ultimately fails to make VR indistinguishable from reality, they almost certainly will have moved the ball a giant step in that direction.