The launch of PlayStation 5 is just a few weeks away and promises to bring PSVR support with it. While we’re excited to give the old headset a try on the new console, PS5’s new DualSense controller may give us an exciting glimpse of things to come.

If you know your game console history, you’ll know that Sony coined the name ‘DualShock’ for its first haptic controllers introduced all the way back in 1997 on the original PlayStation console. With 23 years of DualShock controllers on PlayStation consoles between then and now, you’ll understand why it’s a big deal for Sony to call its PS5 controller by a new name: DualSense.

DualSense isn’t just a name change… it really is a big jump in controller technology from its predecessors. Beyond being arguably the company’s most ergonomic controller yet, the DualSense controller is packed with impressive haptics and motion tracking—the same tech we’d love to see in a future VR controller.

Image courtesy PlayStation

I got to take the controller for a lengthy spin in the ‘Cooling Springs’ level of Astro’s Playroom, a non-VR spin-off from the same studio behind the PSVR masterpiece Astro Bot Rescue Mission (2018). The game was designed to show off everything the controller can do.

More Than Rumble

Photo by Road to VR

Let’s talk first about rumble haptics. While the prior DualShock 4 controller was no slouch, the DualSense controller really is next-level. Rather than old-school ERM (eccentric rotating mass) rumble motors, the controller features a pair of powerful LRAs (linear resonant actuators) which are capable of a much wider range of haptic sensations or ‘haptic effects’ like buzzing, rumbling, thumping, pulsing and everywhere in between.

And the LRAs pack a punch. There’s so much power behind them that at times it can feel like the controller is actually filled with something that’s jumbling around within its volume… and this is where I apologize for attempting the impossible task of trying to convey haptic effects through text.

ERM haptics aren’t very flexible, and the typical ‘rumble’ sensation they provide wouldn’t feel right if used to indicate that your character is swimming. With the LRA haptics in DualSense, a ‘thumpy’ effect alternating between the handles feels surprisingly fitting for the task | Image courtesy PlayStation

The bottom line here is that the LRA-based haptics are capable of delivering a far wider range of haptic effects compared to the ERM of yore. You can think of LRA as increasing the ‘haptic resolution’ the controller is capable of; the difference and complexity of the effects is instantly noticeable with the DualSense controller.

Augmenting the LRA is a small speaker on the controller which not only adds an extra channel of ‘close’ audio to the overall feedback, but the speaker’s high frequency micro vibrations actually contribute further still to some of the haptic sensations. In Astro’s Playroom this was used for things happening directly to the character, like the ‘tink tink tink’ sound of their little feet walking on metal or glass, or the sound of rustling through foliage.

Triggers That Communicate

Photo by Road to VR

Then there’s the adaptive triggers which offer dynamically-controlled spring strength. While the trigger normally feels no different than your typical controller, the force required to pull the trigger can be adjusted on the fly, ranging from the default strength to something much harder—an effect which makes it feel like the game is ‘resisting’ your intentions. In Astro’s Playroom this is used, for example, to give a sensation of ‘crushing’ an object.

And the triggers can do more complex effects too. Rather than simply being harder to pull, it’s possible for them to be harder to pull up to a point, and then suddenly ‘let go’ after that point. That can make it feel like you’re ‘struggling’ through something until it gives way. The reverse is also possible, where the trigger can feel easy to pull until a certain point and then become harder to pull, as if you’re ‘run into’ something along the way.

Seemingly everything that happens to the character in Astro’s Playroom can be felt through the DualSense controller, right down to a faint skating sound heard emanating from its tiny speaker. | Image courtesy PlayStation

Being able to change the trigger pull force on the fly allows the game to communicate far more information back to the player through one of the most important buttons on the controller. Opening up pathways for communicating additional information to the player is what haptics is all about, and it adds another layer of immersion.

For instance, in another game you could imagine the trigger suddenly becoming very hard to pull once your gun is out of ammo—to intuitively indicate that the current trigger pull is ‘invalid’ without needing to flash text on the screen.

It should be pointed out that, while the adaptive triggers are quite impressive, they don’t support what you’d call ‘force feedback’. That would be where the triggers don’t just resist your pull to a greater or lesser effect, but can actively push back against your finger.

Motion Tracking

Image courtesy PlayStation

And then there’s the DualSense tracking, which has astounded me. To be clear: the tracking in the DualSense controller is only rotational (3DOF) right now, but Sony seems to have found some ultra-precise IMU because, even without any external reference point, the DualSense controller seems almost devoid of drift.

That’s counter to my experience with PSVR devices in the past. Even with external tracking from the PS4 camera, I’ve noticed plenty of drift from the headset, PS Move, and PS Aim in various games.

While playing in ‘Cooling Springs’ in Astro’s Playroom the game allowed me to ‘inspect’ an object I found by rotating my controller in space, which would then rotate the object on screen. This gave me a good chance to test out the DualSense motion tracking.

No matter how violently I tried to shake and twist the controller, the on-screen object never lost its ‘forward’ direction—even without an external camera aiding in the tracking. I even sat the controller down in a random orientation for 30 minutes, and then compared the position of the object before and after, and found hardly any change. This shows that the controller’s IMU has very little internal drift and noise.

Little known fact about VR tracking systems: the IMU does the bulk of the tracking work, even for 6DOF tracking. While an external frame of reference—like a camera for inside or outside tracking—is important for correcting drift over time, it provides comparatively infrequent updates (on the order of 60Hz) compared to the IMU (typically around 1,000Hz).

That means that a good IMU is essential to a highly accurate 6DOF tracking system. And from what I’ve seen with the DualSense controller, Sony has picked a darn good one.

– – — – –

All told, the tech Sony is showing off in its DualSense controller on PS5 is really impressive and would be a perfect fit if realized in a PSVR 2 controller, whether that be a PS Move 2 or something else. Haptics are all about increasing immersion, and it’s not hard to imagine how even the existing PS Move controller would benefit from LRA rumble, adaptive triggers, and a much better IMU for tracking—culminating in a much more immersive VR experience.

The good news is that Sony has already deemed this controller tech good enough, cheap enough, and power efficient enough to stick into its standard controller. That bodes very well for potentially seeing the tech come to a next-gen PSVR controller.

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  • Bob

    The implications of this technology in VR is going to be quite exciting! :)

  • psuedonymous

    I wonder if it’s really IMU magic, or just some more esoteric sensor fusion. e.g. if there is more than one RF antenna (not unusual for modern designs) they could be using differential phase-offset of the controller-console comms to help clamp orientation drift.

  • MosBen

    I wouldn’t mind picking up a Playstation, but I won’t do it as long as my only realistic option is the standard controllers with their symmetrical sticks.

  • kontis

    IMU being so good could also be a software thing.
    There were some impressive improvements in IMU sensor fusion using neural nets in recent years.

    There is a company that even offers positional tracking software using a single IMU (!) just with an advanced algorithm that can better understand and correct drift. Its accuracy is obviously not mocap level, but being able to walk in a building and get to the same place with just an IMU blows my mind.

  • Yeah, I’m really hoping this kind of stuff comes to all future VR controllers.

  • Adrian Meredith

    didn’t the CV1 have actuators for the rumble? I miss that, i remember being blown away the first time i pulled the bow string in the lab and it genuinely felt like a string tensing up.

    • Kevin White

      Yes. The Vive wands, the Rift CV1 Touch, and I believe the Index controllers all have LRAs. So do the Switch controllers, and the Steam controller, and some higher end smartphones. The big advantages of LRAs is A) they can vary amplitude and frequency independently and can even, like a speaker, create two or more frequencies simultaneously (you can search for videos of the Steam controllers’ LRAs playing tunes) while for ERMs amplitude and frequency are intrinsically the same thing, and B) their transient response — the acceleration and deceleration time — is many many times quicker than for ERMs.

      • Al Ked

        Here’s the thing, DualSense isn’t actually using LRAs. It’s using VCMs. Related, but different tech.

        LRAs are inherently narrowband in their frequency response, as they rely on resonant modes to deliver low power vibration. Depending on the make it means one, two or three resonant frequencies. VCMs are broadband – you can literally feed them audio and they’ll repoduce it as if they were speakers, because that essentially what they are sans cones.

        The VCMs within the DualSense are absolutely massive, and that’s why they can deliver really high amplitude haptics.

        • Kevin White

          Interesting. Do you have a link where I can read more about VCMs in general, or the DualSense haptics in particular?

          • Al Ked

            Sadly there isn’t much literature about using VCMs for haptics
            – they’re mostly employed as de facto actuators.

            Immersion mentions them here:

            https://www.immersion.com/the-haptic-stack-hardware-layer/

            “Linear Resonant Actuators (LRA): These are linear actuators that consist of a mass on a spring and an electromagnet. The electromagnet is alternately charged and discharged, which results in the mass vibrating at a specific frequency. LRAs are extremely power efficient, and this makes them a great choice for mobile phones and other battery-powered devices. Again, Precision Microdrives has a great video showing how LRA’s work.

            Voice Coil (VCM): These are basically identical to LRA actuators but also have a broad frequency response. VCMs are commonly found in speakers but can be adapted to create vibration experiences. VCMs typically use more power than LRAs but are also able to produce a much richer and more realistic tactile stimulation.”

            LRA’s are a specialized form of VCMs that exploit resonant modes so it self-oscillates and require much less power. That’s why LRAs saw such a wide adoption in smartphones, downside is that it only operates optimally in the resonant frequency and it’s limited in size and weight because, as you can imagine, changing those changes the resonant frequency and you go from fine mid to high frequency vibrations to coarse low-frequency.

            We don’t have the specifics for the DualSense yet, but we’ve seen one disassembled and it what’s inside is definitely not any LRA module I’ve ever seen. Also, the haptics there were specifically described as voice coils, not as LRAs.

            Also, more importantly, we know (and have seen, even) devs piping audio straight through the haptics for the vibration effects – that’s how Astro’s Playroom is doing it. You can it in Dave Lee’s video here:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIqlu4sm5OQ

            That’s not something you can do with LRAs without going into modulation.

  • Gyroscope

    Isn’t 3DOF just a gyroscope? Why would there be a drift? Am I missing something?

    • VR5

      3dof uses 3 gyros and 3 accelerometers (one for each axis). If you used any device with gyro you should be accustomed to drift. They all do.

      They rely on correction to counter the drift. Accelerometers can measure gravitation so that’s one source to detect and counter drift around the x and z axis. For the upward axis there’s no easy anchor but good algorithms can often predict the drift and counter it that way.

      Readings from accelerometers in general are useful to better interpret and utilize gyro readings.

    • namekuseijin

      in my experience, as hands grip on controllers tightened over extended use, the warmth from the hands seemed to be interfering and causing rotational drifting…

      • VR5

        Bluetooth seemed to cause drift on Gear VR sometimes. But mostly not.

        PSVR cinema mode is the worst drift offender for me and I don’t think the warmth of your head is the reason. Sony recommends to lay the PSVR on a flat surface for a a few minutes and that actually stops drift for a good while (over 30 minutes, sometimes hours) after you do that.

        Wii Motion+ which added gyros to the Wiimote also had you lay the controller on a flat surface for calibration before every round in Wii Sport Resort. In Skyward Sword, you frequently had to realign the forward axis by holding down a button as you pointed the Wiimote at the center of the screen.

        Gyros aren’t 100% precise which causes drift. Both sensor quality and algorithm quality affect how bad that ends up being.

  • This review makes me want to try it now!

  • namekuseijin

    call me in 2 years

    what Sony really should try is get a standalone PS portable VR out there to play most VR native games – with optional hook up to their console if you want higher grade VR games. Or, better yet, connection to a streaming service like PS Now…

    I’m done with consoles for flat AAA games, but a console for VR is appealing to me – Quest 2 is great, that’s the direction Sony should go after, not a mere headset

    • camnpat

      Soooo you want a Sony headset that is either less powerful or more expensive than PS5, or one that connects to a streaming service which would introduce lag and/or reduced image quality due to compression…

      Doesn’t sound you are seeking a better VR experience. Merely latching on buzz ‘tech’ to complain about Sony and call it a day.

      • namekuseijin

        Cables are crap for VR, man. You’ll be either playing modest but creative native VR games or streaming either from cloud service or your PS5, just accept it.

        It might well also play regular flat games on a big screen. On current psvr this is not exciting due to low resolution display, but on Quest 2 movies and animations are so crisp! Very much makes TV obsolete, except you’d need a headset for each family member – but to play your own hands, this is awesome

  • Kevin White

    Great article, this whets my appetite more for what I hope is an upcoming (2022?) PSVR2.

  • Jonathan Gagne

    FYI, for 3DoF, there is very little drift on most IMUs. The accelerometers prevent the gyro drift in the roll and tilt axes and that magnetometer prevents drift in the yaw axis. If you have some magnetic interference near by you can get some issues with the magnetometer on the yaw axis, but even with cheap accelerometers and gyros, you’re not going to have drift on the row and tilt axis. The drift comes in big for 6DoF, which is why you always need an absolute positioning system to correct the sensor fusion.

  • wheeler

    IMO motion controller haptics are the most important thing missing from VR aside from varifocal. I really hope there is major innovation here. This is an area where the high end may have a lot of leeway to try out some interesting ideas. So much of VR interaction is bottlenecked by the lack of feedback and developers spend a ton of time working around and making compromises for the lack of feedback

  • Amni3D

    Nice bit of trivia with the IMU handling the immediate 6DOF tracking.

    Also I have a lot of hope for PSVR2. I think Sony understands first party software 5 orders of magnitude greater than their competition.

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