Haptic feedback is a given in gaming controllers, but Artificial Muscle, Inc. is taking its ViviTouch haptic feedback technology and putting it into an entirely different class of products: headphones. We visited the company — it's a division of Bayer MaterialScience — here at E3 and were able to demo the technology, and were very impressed. As detailed by our colleagues at Polygon, ViviTouch uses electroactive polymers to create a more nuanced and energy-efficient vibration than your normal rumble pack. In this case, Artificial Muscle sandwiched its actuators within both the left and right sides of a pair of over-the-hear headphones, and designed them to vibrate in response to frequencies of 80Hz and below. The result is a set of headphones that vibrate ever-so-slightly over your ears, but the results are dramatic.
We watched — and listened — to everything from The Avengers trailer, to a live version of "Hotel California," to a J. Lo track. The experience provided an immediacy that was instantly noticeable. In short, it sounded as if we were actually inside a club that was playing the J. Lo song, or in the room with the Eagles as they ran through the live version of their signature tune. While the movie trailer didn't sound like we were standing next to Nick Fury, it did sweep us away from the noisy trade show floor and deliver the aural experience of watching the movie in a real theatre. Contrary to what we expected, at no point did the vibrations themselves because intrusive or distracting, either. Having been left wanting by other headphones here at E3 boasting "immersive" sound experiences, ViviTouch offered up something else entirely.
Of course, these weren't final products, but merely tech demos whipped up for the show. Artificial Muscle is already working with four different audio manufacturers, however, and expects haptic headphones to be shipping by the end of this year, priced in the $150 to $300 range (according to the company, the haptic technology will bring with it a roughly $50 premium). Because the headphones key off the sound they're reproducing, they can be used for any application, but Artificial Muscle said it has spoken with several game developers and is exploring options that could see future titles control the headphones directly, opening up the potential for informative, atmospheric effects far beyond what multi-channel surround offers today.