With the great HMD revolution pretty much behind us the next big leap in VR technology for mainstream audiences will probably be somewhere else. Sure, HMDs will get better and better, but most of the major problems have already been solved.
That takes care of two rather major senses :sight and sound. To feel truly immersed however, you need the ability to reach out and touch a virtual object. To feel the curve of a car or the craggy surface of a stone wall. With haptic technology things not only look solid and believable, but feel that way too.
A lot of work has been done when it comes to making touch feedback systems, but inevitably most of those devices are expensive and impractical. Now that VR is a mainstream commodity the time is ripe for haptics to follow suite. One company, HaptX, might just be the ones to do it.
You Have to Hand it to Them
The HaptX sure does look bulky, like a weird Japanese cyber-octopus making love to the user’s hand. Compared to the bulky haptic systems we’ve seen before however, the HaptX solution is actually pretty compact and self-contained. The piping has a reasonable explanation too. It has everything to do with the core operating principle of its haptics technology.
However they look or work, the claims regarding their range of haptic simulations is the most impressive thing. These gloves will simulated shape, texture, an object’s temperature and hardness. That’s a big leap over other projects that only simulate some of these. That pretty much sounds like a total solution to my ears. How is this possible?
A Song of Air and Water
The secret sauce in this case is something called “microfluidics” which is a fancy way of saying “tiny tubes filled with fluid”. How small? We’re talking about channels that are less than a millimeter wide. A scale at which fluids behave in special ways. Special enough for there to be a whole field of study on the subject.
It’s this arcane knowledge of microfluidics that makes the HaptX glove possible. It’’s executed in the form of a “smart textile” which the glove is made from. One layer of the material contains tiny pneumatic actuators that can simulate fine haptic details such as texture and shape. A second layer of the textile has fluid-filled microchannels which can mix hot and cold water for accurate temperature simulation.
For force-feedback microfluidic actuators are used to exert pressure on a thin and light exoskeleton. This takes care of the larger scale haptics, completing the illusion that you are touching something real with weight and substance.
Right now HaptX is aiming for a 2018 release of their first-generation glove. There’s no price as yet, but it’s expected to be pretty expensive. Certainly out of mainstream consumer reach. Yet, once the technology is a proven platform, the price should come down just as we’ve seen happen in the HMD market. It’s a first step to consumer haptics, but a very positive one.