From Lab to Industry: How Immersion’s Innovation Drives Touch Technology Forward

We sat down with Chris Ullrich, Immersion’s VP of Technology to talk about the company has evolved over the last 25 years.

Can you take us through Immersion’s history? How did it get started?

Immersion was founded nearly 25 years ago out of a robotics lab at Stanford University. The company’s founding mission was the idea that it could take compelling (but expensive) haptic experiences developed in the lab and make them accessible to the mass market.

And how do you bring haptics to the masses, so to speak?

For the first 10 years or so after the company was founded, it focused on making advanced, high-quality haptic technology accessible and at scale for a reasonable price. Immersion’s unique approach was (and still is) to translate the high-quality experiences it developed by working with OEM partners that can create products at mass market scale (the company doesn’t produce any of the final products in-house). Early on, this was done through a partnership with Logitech and was primarily focused on game controllers. Over time, that approach has been used as a template as the company expanded its offerings into automotive, mobile and professional/industrial markets.

We invest heavily in early-stage research and advanced prototyping activities, all driven by rock-solid value identification (UX). By focusing on the end-user value, it is often possible to focus the enabling technologies to allow high fidelity and meaningful experiences to be delivered, at scale, and with the lowest cost. Essentially, our product is our knowledge, innovation, and know-how captured in reference designs, training materials, and intellectual property.

Why is innovation and R&D important?

Oftentimes when working on experiential prototypes, we are looking 3-5 years into the future and trying to figure out how haptics can intersect key market-moving trends like autonomous vehicles and augmented reality, as well as the latest trends in industrial design. We are always looking for opportunities to create new markets for haptics. Across our teams in San Jose and Montreal, we have more than 20 scientists and engineers dedicated to research, innovation and developing new products and capabilities. In fact, currently, the most prolific patent holder in haptics of all time is Dr. Danny Grant, Immersion’s Program Director of Innovative Research, with more than 240 patent families.

What do you believe is one of the most impactful products or tools Immersion has developed in your time at the company?

In its 25-year history, Immersion has made important contributions across gaming, automotive, mobile and VR. That said, the most impactful technologies Immersion has developed have been enabling technologies for haptic effect design and playback. As a technology, haptics is like speakers are to audio. Experientially, audio is created with a very rich ecosystem of tools, know-how, and standards that enable rich and meaningful audio to be synthesized as part of the creative process. Likewise, Immersion believes that the sense of touch is a key part of many experiences, but it should be created by designers and producers, who don’t necessarily speak electrical engineering or write code. In each market, Immersion always creates a complete toolchain to enable creation, encoding, and playback of haptic effects. Our engineers and researchers provide the capability and our designers layer in the value and meaning on top.

What do you think are the biggest growth opportunities or growth markets for Immersion?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the level of interest in haptics from the automotive market. Haptics has been present in some premium and ultra-premium cars since at least the BMW iDrive in 2000. However, we are now seeing broad interest in integrating haptic functionality in many secondary control systems. I would expect that within a few years, haptics in automotive will become a consumer expectation for many premium and mid-tier vehicle categories.

I also believe haptics will play a large role in augmented reality. Of course, we don’t yet know what interaction paradigms will exist with AR. Will it remove the keyboard and mouse? And if so, what will replace those? A lot of questions still need to be answered, but we know that haptics and touch will play a role in making AR tech productive, intuitive and user-friendly. We look forward to exploring this topic in the coming months and years.

What has kept you at Immersion for so long? Nineteen years!

Immersion is a very unique company that is focused on haptic innovation. There is no shortage of hard problems to solve when it comes to delivering compelling tactile experiences through technology to humans. From automotive to AR to medical, if there is human-computer interaction, then there is a role for touch and tactile feedback to enhance or enable the experience. Our challenge at Immersion is figuring out what that role is and how we can enable the market to deliver these new kinds of human-machine interactions. We’ve made great progress in many markets already, but we are fully committed to continuous innovation, taking the learnings and new technology from our labs to broader markets and audiences around the globe.