Ahead of his presentation at Smart Haptics 2019 this December in Seattle, we sat down with Andrew Mitrak, Director of Marketing at HaptX, to discuss current challenges facing the haptics industry, exciting possibilities for the future, and how advanced haptics are being used to change the way we experience and interact with digital environments.
HaptX Gloves provide realistic tactile feedback. Why is this type of feedback important when designing a product like this?
Virtual reality really comes down to tricking your brain into thinking you’re somewhere else. Today’s VR headsets do a good job of simulating visuals and audio, but plastic gaming controllers do a poor job of simulating touch. Without touch, you’re only observing the virtual world, not truly interacting with it. Today’s controllers solely use vibrational haptics. While vibration is useful for my phone notifications, I’d never mistake a buzz for touching a real-world object.
At HaptX, we aim to simulate touch with as much realism as possible. HaptX Gloves feature 130 tactile actuators that physically displace the user’s skin, simulating pressure sensation the same way a real object would when touched. Our gloves also have force feedback, applying up to four pounds of resistance force per finger. Tactile and force feedback work together to simulate feeling with a high degree of accuracy so that when you touch a virtual object, you’re convinced that it’s real.
HaptX worked with both Shadow Robot and SynTouch on a haptic telerobot. Why are collaborative projects so important in this industry?
That’s right. We collaborated with Shadow Robot and SynTouch to create a system that we call the Tactile Telerobot. It integrates HaptX Gloves with Shadow Dexterous Hands and SynTouch BioTac sensors that capture tactile information. The Tactile Telerobot represents the first time a human operator can feel precisely what a robotic hand feels, from across trans-oceanic distances.
It was an amazing international collaboration between HaptX and SynTouch engineers in California and Shadow’s engineers in London. We all work in haptics, but we’re all tackling different parts of the problem. Ultimately, our three technologies’ products came together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
What are some of the challenges currently faced by the haptics industry?
Today, touch is perceived as a tertiary sense – a distant third behind sight and sound. Most everyone inside our industry knows that touch matters. So the industry needs to do a better job of making the public care about touch. And we need to inspire more institutional investors to fund the development of advanced haptic technologies.
When thinking about the future of haptics, what developments are you most excited to see?
Haptics is part of the next evolution in technology: we’re building technology that adapts to humans rather than expecting humans to adapt to technology. Today, people look down at their phones and hunch over computer monitors. We develop bad backs and strain our wrists because technology forces us into unnatural positions. AR and VR headsets tackle this problem by placing displays in front of our eyes so we can view the world more naturally. Wearable devices adapt to our hands and bodies. With gloves, there’s no need to learn controller configurations of joysticks, triggers, and buttons – you just use your hands the way you use them in the real world. Haptics is becoming more lifelike. We’re not zapping people with buzzes; we’re applying nuanced feedback that replicates real-world objects. I’m excited to see all of these human-centered technologies come together, and to see creators develop experiences and tools that take advantage of this technology. Ultimately, I dream of the day when touch simulation is so realistic it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the virtual and the real.
What are some of the ways in which you think haptic technology can change people’s lives for the better?
One of the proudest moments of my time with HaptX was when we brought our gloves to Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. It was beyond inspiring to watch the young patients smile as they entered our demos and they felt a virtual fox dance around their hand. On that day, we used haptics to entertain and delight those kids. I hope that one day, haptics will be used to help heal them.
There’s already significant research showing that VR can be a powerful tool for pain management and patient rehabilitation. I think that haptic products can expand and augment the use of VR in rehab and recovery.
Your presentation will explore how advanced haptics are changing the way we interact with digital environments. What are some of the key takeaways?
Since we launched HaptX Gloves, I’ve met with well over a thousand companies in a wide variety of industries. They each face their own unique challenges, but one common thread that unites them is they understand that touch is a major missing piece. If you want to create immersion and presence in a digital environment, touch is not optional – it’s a must. HaptX has worked with dozens of organizations, developing and testing proof of concepts and pilot projects that show amazing promise using advanced haptics. In automotive design, HaptX Gloves have the potential to save millions of dollars and months of time by reducing the need for physical prototypes in the vehicle design process. In training, our gloves can help people build real muscle memory to learn tasks, helping people develop skills in a safe, cost-effective environment. In robotics, we’re enabling users to perform dexterous interactions at a distance, effectively transporting your hands anywhere in the world. Touch is enabling more efficient ways to design, review, train, and collaborate. Sure, it’s still early days in the field of haptics, but it’s wise to start experimenting and developing now. The benefits of realistic touch are undeniable, and they are coming sooner than you think.