After vision, touch is the second most important way we comprehend and interact with the world around us. It is also an elementary part of how human beings show affection and emotions.
In virtual reality (VR), the use of touch creates an immersive and realistic feeling. With touch it is almost as if you are there, feeling the surface of an object, the green grass below your feet or water running through your hands. With haptics taking over the world, this is now possible. Today we are talking about haptics: the functionality, and pros and cons, plus the potential for the use of haptics in other industries.
What is haptics?
Haptics in VR appeared with the arrival of the first modern VR headsets, in the 2010s. These new head-mounted displays allowed users to see the virtual world and, through haptic feedback, even enabled users to interact with it. The use of haptic technology envisaged touch as creating a sense of presence and as the foundation for emotional connections and interaction. It has since become clear that the potential of haptics has no limits, as it offers us a new way to communicate with machines.
Robert Blenkinsopp from Ultraleap explains: ‘Haptics is the science and technology of transmitting and understanding information through touch.’ All of us are familiar with phone vibrations, or PlayStation controllers that vibrate in certain places in different games, but the possibilities for haptics go much deeper. Today, haptics is used in the automotive industry; in VR/AR as a part of spatial computing; for advanced military, medical and industrial simulations; and in many more applications. Haptics is present everywhere.
Haptics consists of two aspects: haptic technology (technology that simulates touch) and haptic feedback (the way in which touch can be used to communicate with users). While haptics, haptic technology and haptic feedback seem to be different terms with the same meaning, they are not. Haptics is a broader category that not only includes haptic technology and feedback, but also merges these two with neuroscience and the physiology of touch. Haptics offers the user a whole new way of experiencing virtual reality.
How does it work?
Given what has been explained so far, it is important to note that there are different ways to simulate touch. While haptic gloves are the most common, there is also a technology that requires no physical interaction whatsoever: you don’t have to touch a device or even place your hands on it. Although this sounds like something from a Spielberg film, it works in a simpler way than you might think.
The whole process starts with two small speakers that emit ultrasonic waves at a high frequency. The frequency of these waves is too high for a human ear to hear. These ultrasonic speakers are aligned with each other and each can be individually controlled. By using sophisticated algorithms, these ultrasonic speakers are triggered with very precise time differences, enabling the waves to reach the same point in space at the same time. This point, where these ultrasound waves meet, is called the focal point.
By using a hand-tracking device, a hand can be tracked moving into the same position and the focal point adjusted accordingly. This is where it gets super interesting. These ultrasonic waves are powerful enough to create a micro dent on the skin — a pressure point — which can then be used to create a vibration detectable by touch receptors in the hand. If the pressure point is moved around the surface of the hand, different tactile effects can be created in mid-air. This technology has a plethora of different application possibilities, and below a couple are outlined.
The applications and the potential of haptics
As the technology has developed, haptic suits, gloves and other wearables have appeared, and today these are pretty common. The four main benefits haptics brings to VR are
1. an improved user experience,
2. realism as a part of VR,
3. an alternative communication channel, and
4. the component of touch as a form of emotional connection.
A great example of the application of haptics in industry is in the automotive sector, where such systems have been added to infotainment systems. By using ultrasound, a sensation of touch can be created in mid-air. In this way drivers can focus on driving while, with a simple hand motion, they can change the temperature, music or fans, or even open a map.
The current state of global pandemic offers another fantastic opportunity for haptics to fulfil their potential. At the moment people are encouraged not to touch objects or surfaces with their bare hands. Haptic technology could play a really useful role in the prevention of virus transmission. Imagine traffic lights that turned on for pedestrians with the simple wave of a hand, instead of having to press a button. Or the possibility of validating a public transport ticket without the need to touch any devices. Or using an interactive display panel, such as those with maps in shopping centres or at fast-food restaurants that serve as ordering displays. Such applications could slow the spread of the virus. Furthermore, at the moment many of us have been advised to stay at home whenever possible, especially if our work allows us to work from home. But what about doctors, surgeons and other medical staff? With haptics, even remote surgery is possible! This means that a surgeon from New York could remotely carry out an operation on a patient in Sydney, simply by using a VR headset and haptic gloves.
This scenario might be some way into the future yet, but with haptics it is just a matter of time before it becomes a reality. In fact, at the end of 2021, an operation was carried out: a surgeon from London performed surgery on a banana located in another city. This proves that remote surgery is possible, but we are not yet ready to perform remote operations on human beings. The use of haptics will surely take the user experience to another level and, most importantly, add immersion to the VR experience as we know it.
Too futuristic or not, haptics is the future, with an especially high potential for applications in the post-pandemic world. Its simple functionality might be just what we need to create a world full of amazing opportunities if we can learn how to operate it the right way. One way or another, haptics still has a long way to go to fulfil the expectations of Hollywood films, but we sure hope to live long enough to try them out.