This week at CES 2018, Tactical Haptics debuted a new prototype of their haptic VR controller which allows the devices to attach and detach on the fly in several different poses for different types of gameplay. The controllers are being piloted in IMAX’s VR arcade.
For the last several years Tactical Haptics has been developing VR controllers with a unique form of haptic feedback which they call reactive grip. It works by sliding sections along the grip of the controller to simulate torque forces in your hand (the pressure you’d feel while swaying a baseball bat back and forth in your hands). It’s a compelling sensation that goes far beyond mere rumble haptics.
Tactical Haptics is taking the controllers in a bold new direction which allows the them to be reconfigured on the fly to mimic hand poses that are commonly found in VR games, like a steering wheel or gun.
Tactical Haptics founder Will Provancher says the idea was partly inspired by hardcore VR users who were making DIY controller mounts which would hold their Rift or Vive controllers in orientations mimicking the grips of a two-handed weapon for enhanced immersion for VR games that use two-handed guns.
Rather than simply allowing you to change from one pose to another between games, the new Reactive Grip prototype, which connects in several different poses using magnets and guides, actually makes switching from one configuration to another part of the moment-to-moment gameplay.
At CES 2018 the company was showing a demo where players would use the controllers in what I’m calling ‘Independent’, ‘Symmetric’, and ‘Asymmetric’ configurations, and switch between them on the fly. In the demo, when holding the controllers apart from one another (Independent), you see a pistol in one hand and a wand-like tool in the other. When you bring the two controllers together into the Symmetric pose, you see those items turn into a brand new tool: a gravity gun which has grips that match the physical orientation of the controller grips. And when you bring the controllers together into their Asymmetric configuration (a two-handed weapon pose), you see a gun appear in front of you in the game. Switching between these various poses to suit what tool or weapon you need in the moment actually becomes a fun piece of the gameplay.
Though the magnets help guide the controllers together, it would be challenging to do so while blinded by the headset, if not for the smart addition of green indicators that appear in VR as you move the controllers close to each other. These indicators offer a virtual representation of the controllers’ various connecting points, and make it effortless to connect and reconfigure them as you play. After practicing just a few tries I was easily able to disconnect and reconnect in different poses.
Of course, as you’re using the controllers in their different poses, the Reactive Grip haptics adapt their behavior to uniquely suit whatever you might be holding in VR. When I was using the gravity gun tool in the demo (Symmetric pose), I could feel the grips causing a feeling of torque in my hands depending upon the direction I was swinging an object in the game. When I connected the controllers into the Asymmetric pose and fired the two-handed gun, I could feel the controllers kick backwards as if the gun’s recoil was pushing the grips against my hand.
As I was playing with the different ways that the controllers could be connected to one another, my imagination was immediately engaged thinking about unique virtual tools, weapons, and gameplay that the controllers could enable. The company has also been exploring other poses, and showed me several other ways that the controllers could connect to one another: a top-to-top pose which could be well suited as a bike or motorcycle’s handlebars (with twisting throttle), and a top-to-bottom pose for something like a bo staff or shovel. Before deciding on the final poses, Provancher says the company wants to get a feel for which are the most compelling.
From earlier prototypes which were using three or four actuators per-hand, the latest prototype cuts that number down to two per-hand: resulting in one sliding section on the front and one on the back of the grip. This reduces the ability of the controller to directly apply a feeling of side-to-side torque (whereas the feeling of front to back torque is very clear, thanks to the front and back sliders), but the company has adapted the feedback response to still provide some sensation of side to side movement, even if it’s more abstract than front to back.
Will Provancher, founder of Tactical Haptics, told me that moving to two actuators instead of four makes the controller more practical and durable. With just two, the actuators can be higher quality, more robust, and more reliable, Provancher said. It also makes room on the inside of each handle for a ‘grip’ button to facilitate interactions similar what’s expected with the Rift and Vive controllers.
Minimum Viable Prototype
The current prototypes are undeniably bulky as they need to make room for the actuators, battery, tracking, and the necessary mounting points for being able to attach in various poses. For ease of prototyping, each of the Tactical Haptics controllers has an entire Oculus Touch controller integrated into the handle for tracking. The company plans to build tracking hardware directly into the controller in the future, and it was clear (after holding one of the controllers with the Oculus Touch removed) that will be a major boon to the weight of the controllers. Provancher also says that the controller can be made more compact once the temporary Touch controllers are removed from the design.
– – — – –
Tactical Haptics has ambitions for a consumer version of the controller, but that’s further down the road. For now the company is piloting the reconfigurable version of the Reactive Grip controller at the IMAX VR arcade in LA, and the company hopes to see traction elsewhere in the VR location-based entertainment sector.