Role of Haptics in Virtual Reality

As anyone can guess, virtual reality was undoubtedly the hot button topic of this year’s GDC.

Even though the industry is still in its infancy stage, it is predicted to be a $150B market by 2020. One significant note of difference with years past was there was a new tone and pace of excitement about virtual reality and what it means for gaming that hasn’t been there before. We’ve come a far way since the beginning of virtual reality in the 1950s but we still have a long way to go.

At the show there was a number of headset manufacturers, peripheral makers and app developers all trying to capitalize on its huge potential. Valve, coming fresh off an announcement for their own VR headset, had an exclusive demo booth that was sold out before the conference even started. I had the opportunity to demo Oculus’ Crescent Bay, their most advanced headset, and was thoroughly impressed by the feeling of immersion within the simulation and also by the complete lack of nausea.

From my observations, there is a massive race amongst all the stakeholders in the virtual reality industry. The headset manufacturers are competing to create the best virtual reality experience, with commercial versions expected to release at the end of this year or early next year. The peripheral makers are also busy at work, creating products that enhance the overall virtual reality experience like Virtuix’s Omni treadmill. The treadmill tracks the player’s feet position while he is wearing the headset – this allows player to feel as if he is running around in the game. Peripherals like the Omni treadmill are vital to the virtual reality experience. They give players a sense of agency within virtual reality. Instead of enjoying from a third-person perspective, the player controls his own movements in the game through his actions in real life.

I attended an insightful lecture on Sony’s Project Morpheus and the challenges behind virtual reality. Sony boasted that it achieved immersion in its VR headset (the feeling of being surrounded by an alternate world), but that its next step is to achieve presence (the feeling of agency in the alternate world).

For virtual reality to be complete, it is not enough to be immersed in an alternate world. The user must be able to interact with his surroundings so that the brain is tricked into thinking that the virtual world is reality. At the moment, there is a disconnect between the virtual world and reality. The first thing that I did when I put on the headset was to stick my hands out in front of me. I was slightly disappointed when I didn’t see my hands, and my brain immediately framed it simply as a simulation that I was peering into. When we talk about presence in virtual reality, I believe that haptics needs to be a central part of the discussion.

Haptics bridges the disconnect between virtual world and reality. It provides confirmation to players that what they are experiencing is real. Imagine if you could feel the sand while walking alongside a virtual beach. It gives players a greater sense of agency – they actually feel like they’re there. Haptics is not a new concept in gaming. We’ve seen haptics in the console space, most notably in the Rumble controllers for Xbox and PlayStation. When the controller rumbles as you’re getting hit by a barrage of bullets, you instinctively know to run for cover and get out of the line of fire. Haptics tricks your brain into thinking that you are the game character. In the same way, haptics can have a significant impact in virtual reality. In fact, it is a necessary feature since the ultimate goal of virtual reality is to achieve full presence.

After trying the Crescent Bay, I know now that virtual reality is going to be the next big thing. People are going to be using virtual reality not just for gaming, but in all facets of life – from education to medical to social media. The possibilities are truly endless. It is no surprise that headset manufacturers, peripheral makers, and app developers are all rushing into this industry. It’ll be a glorious day when I can finally experience virtual reality in full presence. In the meantime, I’ll be playing around patiently on my Google Cardboard.