Sight and sound are a given in virtual reality, but other senses are still getting left out of the loop, including touch. Most VR “touch” is a gentle rumble from a controller, standing in for every possible tactile sensation. But at the Game Developers Conference, a company called AxonVR is showing off a haptic system that’s frankly pretty awesome — even if it reminds me a bit of the pain box from Dune.
The box below is part of what AxonVR calls the HaptX platform, which is supposed to include a haptic suit and force feedback exoskeleton. Its haptic system uses tiny actuators that put pressure on different points of the skin, changing temperature as they do so. The result, when paired with visual suggestions from a headset, is a highly precise (by current standards) imitation of a real object. AxonVR isn’t the first company to hit on the idea of using pressure and temperature to simulate touch, but these methods are still far rarer than the usual vibration-based haptics.
For now, AxonVR’s prototype is a flat array of actuators attached to a large silver box. In order to use it, you slide one hand palm-up under a smaller box on the front, then put on an HTC Vive. Inside the Vive, you see a virtual version of your hand, and a series of items: an apple, a spider, the aforementioned deer, and more. You can’t actually use this hand for interactions, though. Instead, you drag objects onto it using a Vive controller in your other hand. When you drop one of them onto your open palm, the system depresses your skin to match. For an apple, you’ll get a round, even pressure. The corner of a small block will poke at a specific point. When the deer lands on your palm, you can feel each of its tiny hooves.
The array’s “resolution” is still relatively low. It’s composed of over 200 actuators, which sounds like a lot, but isn’t enough to completely fool our skin. So the deer’s hooves, for example, felt a little bit too large. When I dropped a spider onto my hand — which was, yes, a little creepy — the dissonance got even more pronounced. Instead of its needle-thin legs, I felt distinct pressure points, like I was holding a tarantula or a handful of pencil erasers.
But when the temperature system comes into play, it can feel eerily realistic. When I rubbed a chunk of snow over my hand, my palm chilled almost painfully. A heated block felt like putting my hand too near a stove — not hot enough to actually burn, but enough to suggest the sensation. (It’s also not remotely on the level of a Bene Gesserit testing device, although apparently Dune star Kyle MacLachlan has actually tried HaptX.) The magic wasn’t in the mere presence of heat or cold, but in the intensity and precise distribution of it.
It’s going to be a while before any of these sensations leave the box, if they ever do. AxonVR’s website shows off a haptic suit, but miniaturizing this system into clothing seems like more of a long-term goal. Chief revenue officer Joe Michaels says the temperature system works by pumping fluids around the array, something that’s difficult to put into something svelte and wearable. And while the system is great at overall shapes, it doesn’t simulate textures — the skin of a ripe apple felt the same as the metal of a grenade. That feature might make it into a future version, though.
AxonVR’s products are aimed at businesses, particularly companies working in design and manufacturing, as well as those creating training simulators. If HaptX proves popular, it could make its way to consumers as well, through theme park attractions and other location-based entertainment. Will that happen? As with many VR peripherals, it’s going to be an uphill struggle. But even if AxonVR’s work isn’t the future of haptics, I hope more people can check it out.