The company formerly known as AxonVR, which has raised more than $5 million in venture capital, is rebranding to HaptX, and revealing a feature prototype of a VR glove which uses micro-pneumatics for detailed haptics and force feedback to the fingers. After trying the prototype for myself, I came away impressed with the tech. The company’s next challenge is to turn the prototype into something sleeker, smaller, and far more practical.

Fitting Procedure

Photo by Road to VR

Meeting with HaptX co-founder Jake Rubin in Silicon Valley earlier this month, I got to try the latest prototype of the company’s wild-looking haptic VR glove—a monstrous piece of equipment hooked up to some massive cabling. Putting it on—with the help of two people by my sides—I felt like I was preparing for a medical procedure, as the pair showed me how to carefully guide my fingers into the right places, pull out some fabric slack, and then tighten the glove to my hand with a ratcheting mechanism to ensure a snug fit. But the point of this prototype is not about size and fit, it’s all about function. And function it did—the haptics and force feedback were the most responsive and detailed I’ve tried to date, in part thanks to the glove’s micro-pneumatics.

Micro-pneumatics

Photo by Road to VR

The HaptX gloves is based on innovative micro-pneumatic technology. The company has developed a method for essentially producing thin, bendable fabrics which are manufactured with a series of tiny air pipes along their length which eventually terminate in small inflatable circles which act as “haptic pixels,” according to Jake Rubin, one of the company’s two co-founders and its CEO. The inflatable circles, just a few millimeters across, are aligned into grids; by precisely controlling when and which haptic pixels to inflate, a convincing sensation can be created, simulating the feeling of an insect crawling along your finger or a marble rolling around in the palm of your hand.

The glove also features force feedback: the ability to restrict the movement of your fingers to simulate holding objects. This too is based on the company’s micro-pneumatic technology, which Rubin explained works by inflating stoppers along the joints of your fingers to restrict their movement. The effect is that when you reach out to grab an object, say, a baseball, your fingers stop right where they should be coming in contact with the baseball.

HaptX CEO Jake Rubin | Photo by Road to VR

Both effects were impressively responsive and quite convincing. I’ve tried a few other similar systems, but the haptics from the HaptX glove blew the others away. The glove puts the haptic material across the palm of your hand and on the tips of your fingers—totaling some 100 individual haptic pixels—allowing you to feel a finely detailed sensation of pressure in all those places. The range of tactile sensations was ultimately surprising; revealed to me when I was thrown in to the company’s farm-themed menagerie of tactile examples.

Feeling the Farm

Photo by Road to VR

Rubin walked me through the demo experience, built using an SDK of HaptX’s design, which he says is largely created by leveraging Unreal Engine’s physics system to tell the glove when and where to apply haptic effects and when and how to engage the force feedback.

With the glove on my right hand, and wearing an HTC Vive headset, I was looking down at a miniature barnyard with some little sunflowers off to the right and a tiny patch of wheat in front of a barn. Rubin encouraged me to start poking and prodding at the scene. Each of the glove’s fingers is tracked by a proprietary magnetic tracking system which Rubin claims is capable of sub-millimeter precision. Indeed it worked well.

SEE ALSO
AxonVR is Building a Generalized Haptic Display

As I reached out with my index finger to gently touch the leaves on the side of the sunflower, I could feel pressure against my finger that quickly and closely followed the visuals, making it easy to connect the feeling with the image.

Next to the sunflowers was a little grey storm cloud, and when I poked it, pea-sized raindrops began falling from within. Stretching out my palm to catch them, I felt a convincing pitter-patter of pressure right on my palm. A similarly convincing moment came when I brushed my palm across the tops of the tiny wheat plants.

Photo by Road to VR

Eventually a baseball-sized tractor came rolling out of the barn. When I went to pick it up like a little toy, my fingers stuck in place—seemingly right against the virtual tractors surface—and wouldn’t budge. It was a convincing effect, especially combined with the haptics putting pressure on the tips of my fingers as though I was holding something. Although there’s no way for the gloves to simulate the weight of the object, making it feel like it was at least real, as far as the volume that it takes up, is a big step up. ‘Mock grabbing’ items with controller-less VR hand input feels really unnatural, but the quality of this force feedback remedied that with ease.

There was more to do and see in the demo, including some tiny critters that came out of the barn to dance around on my palm so that I could feel their little steps (including the eight legs of a spider, which Rubin tells me is the most contested part of the demo). In the end though, the whole ordeal provided me with a new benchmark for small-scale haptics in VR.

Continued on Page 2: Enterprise First »

1
2

This article may contain affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and buy a product we may receive a small commission which helps support the publication. See here for more information.


  • Firestorm185

    OMIGOSH, THEY MADE BUBBLE HAPTICS. VituNet is only a matter of time away now.
    James Dashner may be right. XD

  • Miqa

    This looks promising already. The micro pneumatics already seem to approach a reasonable size and are flexible (?). It has potential to include temperature with warming/cooling of the air. Texture might be more difficult, but probably not impossible.

    The requirement of compressed air is probably the biggest concern for this design as unless they can go really low in pressure, big, loud and energy consuming compressors are required.

  • 144Hz

    This will be great for porn games

    • ale bro

      i need macro-pneumatics for porn, not sure micro would fit me

  • Ian Shook

    Ben, did the force feedback allow for softer items (like a tomato) or was it more of a ‘free moving’ and ‘stopped’ type of restriction?

    • benz145

      Good question. It allowed for some squishiness too, but I don’t believe it’s able to actively push back against your fingers, so once it picks the stopping point it can’t move your fingers backwards. But at least that means no one has to worry about a malfunction breaking their fingers : P

      • David Bunting

        …aaaand all i can picture in my head is the HAMER Industries attempt to copy the iron man suit in iron man 2… you know… the one that spun the torso 180 degrees… with a pilot inside. EESH

  • Sin Dong

    And i will be out in 2025 for $2,000.00

    • Edward Morgan

      Ah, but I am out now, and cost significantly less.

      • T

        $2,000 might be a very low estimate for all that hardware…..

  • Andreas Zetterström

    I wonder why they can’t just use say peltier elements to heat and cold a closed loop gas system for each bubble… that way you would not need the compressor and the whole control system could potentially fit in the glove alone.

  • David Bunting

    if they were able to heat and cool the air (or if they change mediums, liquid) inside the micro-pneumatics not only could they allow the wearer to feel hot and cold, but also simulate pain be using the “Thermal-Grill” illusion by heating and cooling the micro-pneumatic cells in an alternating pattern. Im not saying simulating pain should be a goal for VR but it adds a sense of immersion. With a fine enough control of the alternating pattern they may be able to simulate other sensations as well. It still isnt really understood how the “thermal Grill” illusion works but having a fine grid that can be heated, cooled, and pressure applied to it might help researchers better understand it.

  • Whatever happened to artificial muscle tech? Air bladders aren’t going to cut it. Not only are they bulky, but you will need an air compressor on hand at all times to use them.

  • Seems awesome! I agree that they have to reduce the form factor, though. And it would be interesting to know the price… seems an expensive piece of tech to me (at least $2000)

  • Aaron Benjamin

    too bad they fucking bailed on the exosuit. Changed their named just to avoid the heat about it except ughhh vr is a small community. We all know what you did guys….