There’s nothing like a bit of haptic feedback to truly make you feel like part of a virtual reality (VR) experience, whether that’s a simple controller shake as you impale an enemy or feel the thump against your chest when you take a hit in experiences like The VOID. Outside of gaming companies are developing new tactile solutions giving users even greater sensory feedback, one of which is HaptX and its microfluidic gloves. On display at CES 2020 recently, the gloves showcased some of the best hand haptics VRFocus has tested yet at the same time one of the fiddliest imaginable.
The whole idea behind advancing data gloves beyond the confines of simply tracking the hand to a point where they can actually replicate one of the most sensitive and complex areas of the body is digital control. Grabbing an object in digital space has been available for years but actually replicating its shape and texture is another level entirely.
There are several systems either on the market or coming to which aim to solve these solutions, such as Dexmo Enterprise Edition force feedback glove or the recently revealed Teslasuit Glove. Designed for enterprise use, both are focused around force feedback and feeling the presence of an object, with the latter also claiming haptics for texture identification. All entirely contained within a portable, wireless system.
HaptX, on the other hand, wants to turn that sensory stimulation up to 11, with a unique system which works entirely on compressed air. As such compactness and portability are seemingly secondary factors to providing an experience like no other.
Getting a glimpse of the HaptX Development Kit (DK1) gloves for the first time has that certain wow factor if you’re into prototype tech with a sci-fi flair. The gloves are big (massive in fact), an assortment of metal plates, cables, tubing and fabric that looks unwieldy and highly convoluted to put on (which they are). Not only are they heavy but they both have big pipes going to a mini-compressor to supply the arrays of high-displacement pneumatic actuators with air. The compressor is very quiet as not to disturb whatever work a user might be doing but all of this does mean HaptX really suits slow, methodical actions – can’t imagine a Beat Saber test being conducted!
So does all this equipment and effort actually make for a usable haptic system? Quite frankly yes, yes it does. HaptX partnered the gloves with an HTC Vive Pro and a very basic VR demo involving a farmyard scene. Each glove contains 130 microfluidic actuators and the demoed started off with rain clouds, highlighting how efficient all of these were. The light dappling on the palm was subtle and effective, as close to the real thing as you could imagine.
Other examples of the palm haptics included running both hands over a field of wheat, feeling the individual stems or picking up a small animal which would then wander about, each step reproduced.
The gloves aren’t just about haptics either. Combined with the haptic tech is the force feedback to get a sense of those objects placed within the world. The resistance was sufficient enough to give form to the crates and clouds, offering enough tactile information for natural hand gestures. It was almost a shame that the demo was so basic as it would have been good to try a slightly more complicated process to test the magnetic motion tracking.
Once actually setup in VR the plus points of the HaptX system were plain to see, providing an unrivalled solution for those that want/need maximum hand control and haptic feedback. Yet it’s difficult to see how HaptX plans on making the gloves more user-friendly when its microfluidic system requires a compressor, no matter how ‘mini’ it can be made. The end result is certainly impressive – especially the robot arm demo pictured above – even in this early DK1 stage, just don’t expect to buy one ever!