A flock of different people—equipped with their very own VR headsets—plays a video game, their faces stretched into wide smiles. Nevertheless, all of them are focused on the game they’re playing, probably trying to stay alive inside a virtual world, all while moving around and using controllers as weapons to shoot virtual bullets at unseen enemies. But something’s different here. Instead of simply moving around, turning their heads to see the lands projected on their headsets, their bodies twitch and bend, like they are being touched, or maybe even hit. They’re all using a piece of smart clothing capable of taking VR experiences to the next level. With haptic VR suits, we should finally be able to know just how cool the VR experience is for someone like Wade Watts, the main hero of Ready Player One.
Haptic VR suits should, in theory, give people an additional reason to enjoy virtual reality. Instead simply gazing at scenes and locations, users can finally feel them instead of simply observing them through VR displays.
Creating Haptic Feedback
We, humans, live our life feeling the world around us with our five basic senses. We have vision, taste, hearing, smell, and touch. The last one, touch, or mechanoreception, is much more than simply feeling pressure on our skin. These pressure receptors are only one side of our tactile sensations. We can also feel itching because of special neurons placed under the skin, and we can also sense temperature changes because of special cold and heat receptors buried under our skin.
Most haptic feedback technologies rely on stimulating pressure receptors. At the beginning of 2018, Mouser announced that they were stocking the PiezoHapt, an ultra-thin actuator that provides haptic feedback for wearable devices.
According to the announcement on Mouser’s website, the PiezoHapt “is based on a unimorph design that consists of a multilayer piezo element bonded to one side of a vibration plate. This unimorph structure enables the device to adapt to temperature and shape challenges and allows it to obtain a clear response while still driving with low voltage. The actuator can be driven with voltages as low as 24V and can produce a variety of vibration patterns depending on the amplitude and frequency of the voltage applied.”
With components like these, the future of VR gaming is closer than ever. Soon, users will be able to fully enjoy all dimensions of their games, instead of just the visual elements they’ve grown tired of for the past years.
Modern haptic VR suits
After the Aura Interactor of the 90s, which never saw its full potential as the promising VR haptic suit is was, we had to wait almost one and a half decades for some other company to come up with a new generation of haptic VR suit. We had a couple of products in the form of 3RD Space Vest, or the Tactile Gaming Vest, but they all were niche products that didn’t manage to garner much interest or sales numbers. This is because they offered a limited form of haptic feedback relying on relatively simple solenoid actuators that weren’t very convincing or capable for much beyond simulating hits and impacts. They also appeared before virtual reality headsets made a splash and before the market was ready for haptic feedback suits.
But in recent years, we got a couple of interesting haptic suits that are perfect companions for VR headsets, capable of lifting the VR experience to new heights.
The bHaptics TactSuit
The bHaptics TactSuit is the first we will talk about today. The suit is made out of three components. The first one, named Tactot, is an upper-body vest that features 40 vibration points. Next, we have Tactosy, two sleeves (one for each arm) that provide an additional 20 vibration points for each arm. The third part of the suit is Tactal, a haptic mask for the face that still is under development, but it should come with seven vibration points spread across forehead and temple regions.
The suit supports most major gaming platforms, such as the Unreal and Unity game engines, Android and iOS mobile operating systems, as well as Windows and MacOS computer operating systems. Developers can use the suit’s SDK (software developer kit) to make their games compatible with the bHaptics TactSuit. This suit connects with a PC wirelessly, so there’s no hassle regarding cables.
The suit can provide advanced effects like gun impacts, a sense of recoil while firing a gun, cuts and slashes, punches to the face, blast waves from explosions, and more. Not many games are compatible with it, and there is only a handful of venues that offer VR games that can be played while wearing this suit.
The second haptic VR suit we’ll discuss today is the most advanced one. It is called Teslasuit, and it looks like it came from the future. Unlike two previous VR suits, the Teslasuit offers an advanced form of haptic feedback, electrotactile feedback.
This suit covers practically the whole body, not just the chest, back, and arm areas. Once suited up, the user is able to feel haptic effects all over their body. The suit features 68 haptic points spread all over chest, arms, upper and lower legs, and upper and lower back areas. There are two types of electrotactile feedback implemented in the suit: TENS (transcutaneous electrical neural or nerve stimulation)and EMS (electrical muscle stimulation).
Both of these are used in medicine or neurology—the first one for tactile-related experiments and the second one for various treatments of muscle-related injuries. Together, they offer an unprecedented tactile feedback. Electrodes can be activated with different voltage and amperage; they can be activated in succession, in different rhythms, and in various wave-like patterns. And the suit also comes with the artificial capillary system responsible for the improvement of contact between the user’s skin and haptic points by distributing conductive fluid through the suit.
With a huge number of variables and ways to activate electric stimulation points, Teslasuit can simulate a steady seaside breeze or the frail effect of smoke moving on top of their skin. There’s also the possibility of advanced sensations, like the subtle resistance of a wall when you lean on it, the force of a window that is hard to open, or the heat of a nearby fire. Users can feel like they are neck deep in water or moving through the Australian bush. And with the help of EMS, users can even feel the weight of objects because EMS is capable of contracting specific groups of muscles. For instance, you could play a shooter and feel the weight of your rifle or feel the pressure of a beam that collapsed and trapped your leg.
The number of potential applications is staggering
Look, haptic VR suits can be used for gaming, but the technology is still in its infancy, and it is pretty expensive. In reality, it will likely be used for other purposes before they enter the gaming market. For instance, we expect to see it in the army as a way to train recruits without the need to take them to training fields. Also, it is cheaper (even with a price of $2,500 per suit) to use haptic VR suits for soldier training than to spend money on ammo, guns, field training, and other expenses. With haptic suits, all you have to do is to get a huge, open area, suit up soldiers, and train them. This tech could completely replace field training.
Once the technology becomes affordable enough, we can expect them to invade homes! Haptic Vr suits could disrupt the digital entertainment industry, and they have a chance to replace the classic controllers we use today. Instead of hitting buttons, we could use our actual hands to fire guns in just 10 to 15 years.
VR headsets alone aren’t enough to make simulation feel real. Designers need another piece of the equation, a piece capable of creating not just hype, but a proper explosion. These suits are capable of just that; the technology just has to mature and become affordable.
Featured image courtesy of Neil Movva on YouTube.