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Mad Catz and Able Planet turn Bayer's artificial muscles into impressive headphones

Mad Catz and Able Planet turn Bayer's artificial muscles into impressive headphones

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Gallery Photo: ViviTouch haptics at CES 2014
Gallery Photo: ViviTouch haptics at CES 2014

Last June, we tried on a pair of headphones like nothing we'd tried before — headphones that used artificial muscles to make it feel like you're practically in the same room as your favorite musical artists. At the time, those headphones were just prototypes, but they're about to become a reality. Mad Catz and Able Planet are about to ship the first set of headphones with the tech — starting this month with the $129.99 Mad Catz Freq4D.

Prototypes become reality

The Mad Catz product adapts the company's existing $99.99 Freq3 headphones to the ViviTouch electroactive polymer tech, effectively adding a miniature subwoofer behind the 50mm stereo speaker drivers that lets you feel low-frequency effects in games and music through the skin and bone around your ears. The company's trademark skeletal design features in a wired headset that's clearly designed for gaming, and you'll need to plug it into a PS4, PC, or Mac with a USB cable to actually get the effect. (There's also a 3.5mm connector for standard audio.) I tried a near-final revision of the headset and found it definitely made a difference when shelling enemy tanks in Battlefield — worth the $30 premium to me — but the low-frequency effect didn't feel quite as potent as we described last year.

ViviTouch at CES 2014


That brings us to the Able Planet Linx Fusion. For an estimated $299 for a standard stereo model and $349 for the noise canceling version we tried, they're a long ways from cheap, but as you'd expect for the price they sound absolutely fantastic. Not only do they have a distinct battery so you can get your low frequencies on the go with any 3.5mm audio cable, they also sport a dedicated dial so you can adjust the ViviTouch effect to your liking, potentially making it even stronger than the Mad Catz model. The Linx Fusion was originally supposed to ship in late December, but the company says it will arrive this quarter. Able Planet has quite a few retailers lined up, including Best Buy, Brookstone, and Sears.

Artificial Muscles in more places?

ViviTouch, a division of Bayer MaterialScience, is about more than headphones, though. The firm has been trying to bring its technology to smartphone touchscreens and gamepads for years, back when the company was known as Artificial Muscle. The company's presently shopping around a miniature version of its electroactive polymer actuator that's about the size of a Good & Plenty candy piece, hoping to build it into phones, tablets, gamepads, and wearable devices for buttons that give you haptic feedback. The company also imagines the miniature version could be a smart, programmable alternative to the traditional vibrator motor that tells you when your phone is ringing. The company says there's already a handset in the works that features the technology.