Omnipulse is a new haptic technology out of Cornell’s Organic Robotics Lab which uses an array of embedded pneumatic actuators to create haptic feedback which feels quite ‘organic’ compared to the more ‘mechanical’ of many other haptic technologies out there. With the ability to form the flexible Omnipulse skin into arbitrary shapes, the technology could be integrated into VR controllers, gloves, or potentially even haptic VR suits.

Showing off their technology at GTC 2017 this week, the Organic Robotics Lab has been collaborating with NVIDIA to create compelling haptic feedback with a version of the Omnipulse skin which was adapted to a Vive controller. Running inside of Nvidia’s VR Funhouse demo, the lab showed the haptic system being used to convey sensations of gun recoil, hitting a hammer against objects, punching objects, and shooting a squirt gun.

The prototype haptic skin is shaped to conform to the controller and simply slides over top of the existing structure. From there it’s attached to a tether which, at this stage, contains one pneumatic tube per pulsating pocket (currently 12), though the creators tell me there are a number of ways to simplify the tether. The tether runs to a compressor which pressurizes air for use in inflating the various actuators; compressed gas like C02 could also be used for a system that wouldn’t need to rely on a powered compressor.

The sleeve itself feels like a piece of thick rubber, with a consistency similar to your own skin; combined with the roundness of the inflating pockets, the whole ordeal feels quite a bit more squishy and organic than many other haptics technologies we’ve used for VR. When you see it active on the controller when it isn’t in anyone’s hand, squirming and shaking the controller at times, it’s actually a little creepy how it seems… alive.

But that doesn’t mean it can only provide organic-feeling feedback. Actually the creators say it’s capable of applying a hearty 15 PSI against your hand (provided you keep a firm grip), which means it can push quite hard against your hand. I was surprised to find that the response time was fast enough to create a compelling feeling of the kick of a gun in my hand when I tried the demo.

When it comes to haptics, pneumatics are not new to the scene; we’ve seen it used in gun peripherals, haptic vests, and more in years past. What’s interesting about Omnipulse is the ability to integrate many pneumatic actuators within a tight space, and control them all independently from one another. This means more ‘haptic resolution’, and the ability to create more advanced haptic effects.

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The creators of Omnipulse tell me that this is a very early prototype, and what I saw and felt was just a preliminary set of haptic effects in one potential form factor. There’s still lots of exploration to do with regard to figuring out how to pulsate the actuator array in ways that create the most compelling haptic sensations that feel like a good analog for what the user is experiencing in VR. And further out, the company plans to experiment with different form factors, saying that the skins can be molded in arbitrary shapes, with the possibility to be made into gloves and even haptic suits.

Road to VR is a proud media sponsor of GTC 2017.

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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."
  • George Vieira IV

    That certainly looks intriguing, though a corded experience doesn’t seem like the way to go.

    • Gus Bisbal

      So people saying “I want wireless, I want wireless, I want WIRELESS!!!” I have one thing to say to you. Physics people. Its not a design choice to add a cord. Its not like I don;t like little buttons make them bigger. The physics of this requires you to give it energy and signal and that is what the cord does. Wireless only gives it signal. This is not a visual illusion. Its real. You touch it, you can’t just change the “1s” and “0s” and expect what you feel in your hand to change. It needs energy and that needs a cord. Stop making out that a wireless signal can do everything. It doesn’t.

      • George Vieira IV

        No doubt, that is the problem with it’s underlying tech. You’ll never be able to make a fluid (air or otherwise) system compact enough to be cordless. I don’t think the Reactive Grip haptics are as good, but it looks much more feasible.

        It’s a shame because the effect does look good, but can it be good enough to trade in the cordless controllers for a corded one? Perhaps for a VR arcade that has all the equipment packed into a backpack, but I could only imagine how much it would weight, besides cost.

  • Damien Wilson

    I’m sorry, but I wish these companies would focus on developing more compact controllers versus adding onto the ‘already obtuse’ Vive wands. Why can’t they understand that we don’t want ‘shake-weight-esque’ controllers, which are already an outdated design after the launch of Oculus Touch and reveal of HTC’s new prototype Vive controllers. Bottom-line, less is more.

    • Rogue Transfer

      There’s really nothing in this solution reliant on the wand shape. They’re just more convenient for prototyping with add-ons like this.

    • Gus Bisbal

      I have a company working on a new controller, that wraps around the hand and is smaller and works with weapons, but that objective is totally different to what these people are doing. Your wishes have very little to do with what a person does with their lives and doing this sort of thing is 1000% life consuming, so I happen to have passion for creating the kind of controller your talking about but this guy doesn’t and asking him to commit to your desires when you spent 15 secs typing them out and no further work, well….be grateful someone somewhere is doing thing at all instead of complaining stuff hasn’t been delivered to your door by now. Get my drift?

      • Damien Wilson

        Don’t get upset because you haven’t succeeded at whatever endeavor. Consumers dictate the market and not unknown companies such as yours. You should take notes on what consumers want rather than offense at their feedback. I don’t care how many hours you or whoever has invested into product development, be smart enough not to advertise said product until its matured beyond this. Bottom-line, don’t expect consumers to show interest in half-ass concepts.

        • Shaun

          Way to not read the comment at all

        • Gus Bisbal

          Without people doing what I do, there are no consumers. There is nothing to consume. I am not upset, you are. That was my point. I am not the one dissatisfied with what someone else does. Also you don’t represent the mass majority, I know, I know, you feel your feedback speaks for all people. Of course it does. Consider that this article speaks about developing technology. Which I, as a consumer am very happy that its happening. Your acting like you have received it in the mail and it wasn’t as advertised. Not everyone reacts to new things that way. Some are grateful its even happening. That was my point.

  • Cool (but creepy as f)

  • NooYawker

    That looks really gross.

  • Andrew Mcevoy

    Looks like something out of a David Cronenberg film.

  • Ian Shook

    Can you turn it inside out? Asking for a friend.

  • Robert1592

    Does not anyone notice the huge air intake tube poking out the back. This is just a bladder with separate compartments for inflating. The problem they’ll never over come is the need for pressurized air coming from somewhere. Many researchers embark on work that’s doomed to fail by ignoring the obvious pitfall. The notion that you can solve any problem with time and money is false.

    • Shaun

      The article literally talks about the tether and possible solutions. There should be a damned quiz before people are able to comment.

      • Robert1592

        They write “though the creators tell me there are a number of ways to simplify the tether” the problem is that I very much doubt there are ways to simplify the tether. Its an obvious flaw that they will not overcome. Nobody is going to be walking around with canisters of compressed gas. That’s ridiculous.

  • MentalParadox

    I’ve been saying it for years, and they still don’t get it. We’ll never get realistic haptics by using these bulky devices. We need VR that bypasses the senses entirely, and is more comparable to a lucid dream rather than a video game.