Switzerland-based Foldaway Haptics is building a haptic joystick with force feedback. The impressive device, which can push back against your finger in any direction, could bring rich feedback to VR controllers at reasonable costs.

Over the years we’ve seen some really awesome haptic tech, like the HaptX glove that offers compelling tactile sensations and force-feedback on all five fingers. But it’ll take something simple and low cost to have any chance of finding its way into the consumer VR space which is currently dominated by controllers—which are rapidly converging on thumbsticks as the primary input mechanism (aside from motion).

That makes Foldaway Haptics’ solution quite interesting. The company is building what’s effectively a tiny three legged platform than can move and tilt in any direction. They’re adapting the mechanism to function as a joystick which offers force-feedback. At CES 2019 this week the company showed off a prototype VR controller with the mechanism built-in.

I tried the prototype running with a Vive headset and a small demo game that Foldaway built. In the game I saw a miniature cartoon farm in front of me at waist height; a few different animals were running around on the ground. When I reached out to grab an animal, I pushed down on the thumbstick to ‘grip’ the animal between my hand and my thumb. Upon grabbing the animal, the thumbstick became stiff (letting me know that I had successful grabbed something).

Each animal had somewhat different haptic properties. The pig, for instance, was a little bit ‘squishy’, allowing me to push my thumb down on the stick a bit. The penguin was ‘harder’ so the thumbstick resisted my thumb much more. If I squeezed too hard, the force-feedback would give out and the thumbstick would bottom out until I let go (I expect this is to protect the motors and mechanism from damage).

Co-founder Marco Salerno told me that the current prototype is capable of pushing back with two newtons (about the force of two apples resting on your hand), though they could feasibly push upward of 15 newtons with some different design tradeoffs.

Beyond force-feedback just in the up and down direction, the joystick can also tilt itself against your finger rather than just pushing back. This allows directional information to be conveyed to you through touch, which is a big deal because the simple vibrating haptics in any consumer controller (VR or otherwise) cannot convey arbitrary directional information.

A concept of what a it could look like with the haptic mechanism hidden within the controller. | Image courtesy Foldaway Haptics

The ‘platform’ of the mechanism of course didn’t feel quite like a traditional thumbstick because of the way that it pivots differently and because of its shape. However, Salerno says that the current prototype is designed to show the mechanism, but a more mature design could replicate a thumbstick much more closely in both look and feel.

The feedback offered by Foldaway is still largely an abstraction, just like vibration, but even if it’s not explicitly ‘realistic’, it can offer much richer information about the virtual world, which has the potential to add to immersion.

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In describing the Foldaway thumbstick, Salerno told me that the mechanism is effectively a tiny “robot,” in the sense that it can be directed to execute precise movements and also use the force from the user as input to inform its motions . The mechanism, he said, is fundamentally designed after a ‘delta robot’, but the company’s innovation is the ability to make it very small while maintaining a wide range of motion, achieved through an “origami-like” construction.

Photo by Road to VR

According to the Foldaway website, Salerno holds a Ph.D in robotics and worked for three years as a researcher at the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a Swiss university. Salerno’s co-founder, Stefano Mintchev, holds patents for “foldable systems,” and also worked as a researcher at the same lab as Salerno.

Salerno told me that Foldaway has received around $500,000 in grants and is in the process of raising a $2 million seed investment.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • It’s either really cool, or really silly. I’ve have to try this in person with some suitable experiences to really tell. They better come up with something more compelling they squeezing stress balls virtually…

    Unfortunately, this looks like one of those experimental things that’ll never see in the light of day. Unless they aggressively push out development units it’ll never move past being an “Interesting concept model”. They need to do a Kickstarter, openly sell development kits, produce a few thousand well still in development, and put them in the hands of developers! All of these niche hardware developers need to do this if they really want to make their vision a reality.

  • The controllers may be “meh”, but what’s really interesting is this acctuator tech, someone know what’s that? It could be use as real, directional haptic in suits and gloves, it looks like the acctuators may be really small and slim, thats great for example for gloves. Also the amount of force is very impresive, 15N is a lot, it’s like holding 1,5l water botle on your thumb, of course it would probably overheat operating at that kind of force, but for smal periods of time it would work great.

    • Lucidfeuer

      The smart thing is that it uses a mechanical foldable system, in other terms it doesn’t consumer much energy neither does it “overheat”.

      • Jerald Doerr

        ???? I’m thinking they’re just using 3 digital servos… It should not overheat if so it’s set up /designed wrong.

      • I would disagree, I don’t konow what are the types of this accuators, but it doesn’t look like something that uses regular motors. And what do you mean by “mechanical foldable system”, it is a so broad category that you could just said “user input/output controller system”. It doesn’t consume much energy in normal uses, but the greater the force you can have, the greater current, and the uniwersal truth in electronics is you can dump as much current to something as long as it is not overheating, because the ultimate cause of electronics failing is heat. There are some other reasons, but they are more specific.

        • Lucidfeuer

          Well I don’t think those actuators are based on pure electric motorised forced, but rather smart foldable pieces which means the force is being output by the mechanical tension of the pieces on the button, therefor energy acts merely as…well actuation of the pieces, so I don’t think such a small object and simple will ever get to use much energy and overheat.

  • impurekind

    Cool.

  • A simple but interesting concept. It will be interesting to see if it actually will find applications

  • Rosko

    I hope somebody one day figures out how to add mass in VR, that’s the biggest immersion breaker for me.

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    • G-man

      so produce mass from nothing on the fly….just break the fundamental laws of physics.

      only option i could see would be to have a backpack of water you carry around that put water into a device in your hand to change the weight of the controller. otherwise theres no way to on the fly change somethings mass.

      • Rosko

        Nope not by breaking the fundamental laws of physics same as vr itself is not breaking the laws of physics. I’m under no illusions of the difficulty of it or even the impossibility. Hence why i said ‘hope one day’. A crude ballast would work but probably not practical & don’t worry i have already thought about crude solutions like ballasts & counter weights. Another option is to make something appear lighter, an exoskeleton perhaps or maybe in the future we can directly alter perceptions through bio implants or drugs. For now being immersed in a virtual world & then interacting with an object that have some noticeable weight is ‘jarring’, to me at least.

  • Albert Hartman

    I must have missed this at the CES show. I agree some sort of hand haptics needs to happen: gloves, force feedback joysticks, squeeze balls, ultrasonics, whatever. Plus they need to be physically tracked well so that you can see your hands out there.

  • Jerald Doerr

    Hate to be downer Tom here but battery life is going to be cut to more than half… But a great job fitting all the electronics in a tight space!

  • psuedonymous

    Looks like it can tilt as well as translate,so more of a Stewart Platform than a regular Delta.

    • Jerald Doerr

      Nice…

  • NooYawker

    I don’t know if this adds to immersion. It’s a thumbstick.

    • Jerald Doerr

      But it has force feedback so I’d say it qualifies as an immersion aid.

      Like a gaming steering wheel… Fun… But much more Immersive if it has force feedback.

  • Rosko

    ? Mass=weight. A lack of weight in vr is an immersion breaker. IRL objects have a specific mass in VR they do not.

  • Lucidfeuer

    Quite smart.

  • CursingLlama

    I think this joystick would certainly add some useful feedback in VR, and It would be amazing if it were added to the knuckles controllers which would result in having analog sensors for all fingers and the thumb. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. Maybe for knuckles V2 it’d be a possible consideration though.

    I still think DextrES has the most potential when it comes to this sort of feedback. It is just a glove however and therefore doesn’t have the easy method for smooth locomotion in VR provided by a thumb stick. I think we would need a good 3d treadmill to pair with it.

    DextrES article:
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181015113519.htm

  • doutatsu

    AxonVR, now HapticX, originally wanted to build the whole system, which would also bring weight in. But we are far away from it, but you can check the original article and video:
    https://www.roadtovr.com/axonvr-builds-holodeck-nvidia-physx/

  • axphin

    I was just thinking the other day when I saw that Pimax was making two different controllers. Why not combine them into one controller and have the thumbstick retract into the controller. Then the user can just choose the method they want when the want and only have to buy one set of controllers.
    This solution looks very interesting. I’d love to try it and I wonder how well it holds up over time.