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Insights: Case Studies

Creating Haptic Feedback in VR – The Technology behind Ultrahaptics

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Robert Blenkinsopp | VP Product | Ultrahaptics

22 Mar 2019 | 4 min read

Haptics company Ultrahaptics won Innovative VR Company of the Year at the 2018 VR awards. Rob Blenkinsopp, VP Product, writes about the story behind creating haptic feedback in VR without the need for wearables or peripherals.

Presence is the magic of VR, and it’s almost self-evident that adding the sensation of touch into VR increases users’ sense of presence.

Most people, when they’re asked to think of what haptic feedback in VR looks like, think of something like Ready Player One: gloves, suits or even fully immersive rigs.

But what if you could create haptic feedback in VR without the need for wearables or peripherals? What if you could project tactile sensations onto a user’s hands, just as a headset projects visuals onto their eyes or headphones project sound into their ears?

Creating Haptic Feedback in Mid-air

That’s what Ultrahaptics does. Our patented algorithms control ultrasound waves to create tactile sensations in mid-air. No controllers or wearables are needed: ultrasonic speakers project shapes and textures directly onto a user’s hands. The haptic technology is typically combined with gesture tracking to create rich interaction zones in three-dimensional space.

Haptic Technology

Visual representation of how haptic technology works with the Stratos Explore Dev Kit

With Ultrahaptics’ technology, you can cast a magic spell in VR with your hands and feel the magic sparkling along your fingers. You can feel energy swirling around your hands or bubbles popping on your palms. And you can touch a virtual world with your bare hands, just as you touch the real one.

Haptic Feedback in VR: The Journey from Concept to Commercial Reality

Ultrahaptics’ technology has its roots in research at the University of Bristol, where current CTO Tom Carter worked on doctoral research on Human Computer Interaction with a focus on haptic technology. Tom founded Ultrahaptics half-way through his PhD and, as Ultrahaptics gained support and investment, he left his PhD to fully dedicate his time to helping the company grow. He returned to Bristol to complete his PhD in 2017. The company’s five years old now, and has grown from fewer than 5 employees in 2014 to over 100 today. Over that time, our technology has moved from fantastic concept to commercial reality.

We’ve moved from the point where it could take a whole day to do the mathematics to render a single pressure point, to where we have a library of ready-to-use sensations (such as rotating circles, hand scans, sparkles or ripples). Developers with no prior experience of haptics can easily add these to their own VR experiences.

In 2018 we launched a Unity® plugin and the first plug-and-play hardware suitable for public installations, the CE-marked STRATOS Inspire.

Stratos Inspire

The Stratos Inspire Haptic Module

Integrating Haptic Feedback into VR Experiences

Ultrahaptics’ technology is like an iceberg: under the surface of our plug-and-play hardware and easy-to-use haptic sensations and tools is a huge amount of research and engineering. What’s most rewarding for us is when people don’t even notice this! It’s when we see inspirational VR content creators able to effortlessly use our technology to integrate haptics into their own experiences.

A great example of this recently was when independent VR studio Fallen Planet integrated mid-air haptics into their own IP to create an immersive, multi-sensory haptic horror experience. AFFECTED: The Visit is a brand-new three-minute experience extending Fallen Planet’s existing IP AFFECTED: The Manor.

In-game still from “Affected – the Manor” from Fallen Planet Studios.

Using the Ultrahaptics Core Asset for Unity®, the studio was able to integrate mid-air haptics into their existing IP and Unity® workflow, try out different haptic sensations and iterate quickly with no prior knowledge of the technology.

Visitors have said things about the experience such as, “It was the sickest experience ever! You could actually feel as things were happening,” and, “It’s the first time I’ve had any sort of sensation like this before. Paired with the content it was… consuming.” There have also been some great audience reactions – see one of the ones we liked best here.

This is Just the Beginning for Haptic Feedback in VR

Even small touches of haptic feedback in VR can have a huge impact on users’ sense of presence when used at the right moment.

People are also starting to talk about the rise of haptic storytelling. No sense is as intimately linked with emotion as touch, and we are starting to understand just how powerful haptic feedback in VR can be when used at key narrative points.

What I’d love to see in the VR Awards next year is an experience that takes VR onto the next level by using haptics in a creative, surprising way I’d never have thought of myself. The sense of touch is a huge, untapped resource for immersive storytellers, and the haptic technology now available – both our mid-air haptic technology and other devices – is giving VR content creators the tools they need to develop ground-breaking experiences.

About the author:

Robert Blenkinsopp is Ultrahaptics’ employee #1. As VP Product, he explores and develops new forms of interaction enabled by mid-air haptic technology.

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