Gamescom is one of the few truly gargantuan expos dedicated to gaming, holding within its massive Zeppelin hanger-sized halls all manner of ostentatious booth featuring all the big names in gaming. But it’s not all glitz, cosplay, and long lines at Gamescom. Back in the more demure B2B area, only accessible to trade visitors and press, was bHaptics, a Korean startup that recently joined HTC’s Vive X Accelerator Program specializing in actuator-based haptic devices, all of which ideally fit together to create a greater sense of immersion for VR games and experiences.
Everything in the TactSuit kit is wireless (Bluetooth Low Energy), which includes a vest and two ‘Tactosy’ arm bangles. There’s also a head-mounted haptic piece that wasn’t present at the show, which bHaptics explained to me was because it’s still in prototyping, and that unlike the picture shown below, which is more of a headband, it would either replace or fit over the foam gasket in either HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
Initially strapping on the vest, I was told you have to cinch it tightly to your body so you get solid contact with each of the 40 actuators (20 on the front, 20 on the back), something that felt more or less comfortable at first. However getting more and more into the zombie shooter demo, which unleashed an array of different enemy types at me from 360 degrees, I started to feel the vest’s material hold in more and more heat. I would guess that longer playtimes (in excess of 20 minutes) would see some discomfort in users. The entire kit, headpiece included, contains a total of 87 actuators.
Lets get this out on the table before I go any further. Buzzing actuators, like those in smartphones and motion controllers alike, are pretty limited in the type of tactile sensation they can simulate. For example; a short, strong buzz would be good for a gunshot, and a long, weak buzz for a simple touch. The more the actuators however, the greater the ‘touch resolution’, which can create other sensations either by activating multiple actuators at once, or in a specific sequence. Think about getting shot in the stomach by a pulse rifle. The interior shot is hard and fast, and actuators on the periphery of the shot only gently buzz in a wave extending out from the shot. You can also simulate things like a slice across the chest or back in any direction, or an electric shock which sends the whole vest’s worth of actuators in a chaotic tizzy.
Anyway, zombies were lurching towards me from all sides, and feeling a claw ripping down my back for the first time, which was really just a line of actuators activating in sequence, was a surprising as it was terrifying. My brain filled in the necessary gaps, as I learned ‘buzz = bad’ in a short order. Soon the horde had me surrounded and my whole vest was buzzing wildly, with me frantically shooting to get them off of me.
As for the arm bangles, they’re a piece of the kit that do essentially one useful function: activating when you fire a gun to give you more perceived kick-back. This I found less useful for the purpose of overall immersion, and I may chalk it up to the demo, but the frantic shooting resulted in two constantly buzzing forearms. The bangles can technically also allow for more detailed haptic feedback because of their higher ‘actuator per square inch’ resolution, but I’m not sure what it would accomplish outside of having to learn what certain buzzes mean in the context of a game.
In the end, I learned that actuators alone do not a perfect haptic solution make, but you certainly can’t deny the novelty of strapping into a vest that lets you feel the digital realm in any capacity. I’m still not certain it’s really for me just yet though. At “less than $549” for the consumer version (coming later this year), TactSuit customers will likely fall into two camps; enthusiasts at the forefront of VR gaming, and out-of-home entertainment parks like the Korea-based Lotte World, which currently hosts VR games using the set-up. There’s always the question of support too. Like many new VR peripherals, the onus falls on individual developers to import TactSuit’s plugin into their projects, so the list of games that will work with it depends entirely on the game developer’s appraisal of whether taking the time to do so will be a profitable use of their time. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break out of, but there’s no telling what customers want and how loud they’ll be about getting it.