Immersion in VR is dependent on a number of factors. And while field of view, resolution and frame rates are all important cogs in the engine room, there's little feeling like lifting your arms up with VR controllers and seeing it match your movement.
But what if you could, instead of just interacting through the buffer of a controller, feel everything you make contact with in the virtual world? Well, that's the aim of startup Hapto, which has created a VR controller with haptic pushers that's currently doing the rounds on Indiegogo. One Hapto controller is available at an early bird price of $129 before retailing for $249 after its expected shipment next March.
Hapto CEO Alexander Khromenkov gave us a break down on what the device can do, how prospective users will be able to feel VR differently and what's in store for the future.
"A long time ago we started a project in the medical field, so we were developing a system for motion analysis, and we realised we could apply the same science to gaming," he told Wareable. "But with motion tracking becoming a standard feature among headsets, we tried to focus on something different to the other guys in the industry."
Of course, what separates the device is the haptic feedback in the pushers. And with this being a relatively fresh concept to the scene, Khromenkov walked through how this will feed back to the user in order to create the type of experience that feels like the making contact with items in the real world.
"The easiest form would have been to work with vibrators — everyone works with them — but we realised that this couldn't give you the real feeling because, for example, when you touch a table, it doesn't vibrate," he explained. "Instead, you would feel the push against your fingers and your palm. So from there we decided we wanted to build a device that could offer motion capture and this realistic feeling in the same device."
"These pushers work independently, and it can differ between a slight push, a hard push or everything in between," he added. "But we also have a software that can analyse the virtual scene — in a game, for example, so developers shouldn't have to think a lot about how this works, the pushers just integrate and figure out where is the hand and where it is in the game thanks to the LEDs on top of the controller. When you move your hand around a virtual space, it understands where on the hand it's being touched."
But while the concept would appear prime to revolutionise how many VR users interact inside the headset — especially considering its ability to work with high-end players like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, as well as mobile VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream — Khromenkov also admitted that the product would be undergoing some changes over the coming weeks.
Currently, all of Hapto's pushers are located on the palm of the hand, something that Khromenkov indicated was due to ease of production and development, though a new glove-style device will see the haptic buttons relocate to incorporate individual fingers. Three will sit on each digit alongside buttons to aid navigation, while five will remain on the palm of the device.
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"We had a lot of feedback from our backers and externally about why we didn't do a glove instead of this device that just sits in the palm," Khromenkov said. "So we realised, why not? We started working on this a few weeks ago, and we plan to show it in around a month to backers of the project to see what they think."
And while redesigning the device does present risks and challenges of its own, a product looking to tap into the VR controller market also has to compete with the big hitters' own options — think Oculus Touch, HTC's Vive Tracker and Steam's upcoming Knuckles.
Not just that, but since this is providing specific haptic feedback, working with game developers and studios to implement the company's SDK is also a challenge. Khromenkov discussed how, alongside the competition, working through this issue is key to the product's long term success.
"Working with developers is like the whole egg and the chicken thing — you know, what comes first, the user base or the games," he told us. It's hard to sell this device without having things at the ready, but developers don't want to get involved without a base being there. Right now we're talking with developers and studios and we're going to provide them with the new glove."
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As always, whether the project is worth backing is the biggest question left to answer here.
Let's start with the basics — this is a device that's offering something different to users of pretty much all platforms, with support for Microsoft Hololens and Playstation VR coming after the company negotiates the gloved redesign.
Speaking of which, Khromenkov indicated that this wouldn't require an overhaul in the software or the hardware, with it simply acting as an improvement ahead of the roll out to backers next March. However, for those who have already backed the project, they will get a say in whether they prefer the new concept before making the switch.
Even if Hapto does manage to create a glove that provides realistic feedback to the user — no easy task — it still faces an uphill battle against the platform's giants. But, all things considered, this is a project that's offering something different to a controller space which is still developing, and to that end it's worth exploring if you're looking to immerse yourself even further into the VR world.