With the commercial launch of the Oculus Rift in 2016, virtual reality (VR) is closer to revolutionising the mainstream gaming world than ever before. Soon the dream of experiencing total immersion in a digital game world will become a reality.
VR systems lack the ability to simulate the sense of touch
VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive allow players to experience visual and audio immersion, while motion sensing allows players to manipulate their environment. But while this hardware gives players the tools they need to navigate and view virtual landscapes, VR systems still lack the ability to simulate the sense of touch.
That’s where haptic technology, or haptics, comes in. Haptics uses vibrations and force to provide tactile feedback to players — the technology has been a mainstay in video games for years, providing jolts and rumbles through handheld controllers.
In some cases, motion tracking can be used to control a virtual avatar instead of a controller. So here’s a question for you: how do you provide haptic feedback to a player who doesn’t have his hands on a controller?
NullSpace VR believes it has the answer. This seven-strong team of engineers and developers is developing a full-body haptic feedback system that gives users the ability to move freely in a 3D virtual environment. More importantly, it allows them to reach out and touch it.
Morgan Sinko, the team’s founder, had the idea for the NullSpace VR system after watching his brother struggle with a Kinect after returning from deployment in Korea. He felt that the trouble his brother had using the Xbox camera was due to a lack of physical feedback, which made it difficult for him to compensate for his in-game failures.
For the Intel-Cornell Cup in 2014, Morgan gathered a group a friends from the Robotics Lab at the University of Rochester and started developing their own haptic technology.
If you watch the video above, you’ll see that the team’s first prototype consisted of a pair of gloves, a Kinect camera, and a VR headset, and while the team didn’t win the Cup in 2014, they had a positive reaction from the crowd, which inspired them to continue their work.
The suit has 8 sensors and 35 feedback zones
The team’s system has since evolved into a full-body feedback suit that has eight different sensors. These enable the system to keep track of where you are, even if you leave the sight of the tracking camera.
So how does this system deliver feedback? Inside the suit, there are dime motors scattered across the body in 35 feedback zones. These tiny motors combine different vibrations (clicks, buzzes, and jolts) to form what NullSpace VR calls “proxy feedback”.
This feedback allows the system to simulate a wide variety of effects (127 in total), while giving the wearer a sense of being in a virtual realm without feeling as if they’re an intangible ghost in the machine.
The system is also light and easy to put on, something that is key to the company’s philosophy of making its wearable user-friendly. While this means that the system is unable to provide some types of feedback, like actual force (which would require a bulkier exoskeleton), it’s important for the team that the suit is easy to put on over your clothes and comfortable to wear.
When you play virtual dodgeball, you’ll feel the ball hitting you in the chest
Lucian Copeland, the team’s business manager, thinks that NullSpace is the next step towards making VR its own distinct platform. “Go back to the original foundations of VR – like the Holodeck from Star Trek… Their vision was walking around in a virtual space. It’s important to think about VR before MMOs and FPS’s (first-person shooters)”, he says.
For Copeland, virtual reality is going to be as unique a platform as mobile gaming is to console gaming.
“The experiences that will shine in VR will be 3D experiences, not ports”, Copeland says. One example he gives is a virtual dojo, where buzzes in the NullSpace suit can help correct the wearer while they learn karate. Other activities that could be enhanced by the suit include dodgeball, archery, sculpting and boxing.
To help developers work with the suit, NullSpace has worked hard to make the suit capable of integrating with different types of tracking technology, as well as developing an API with tools for developers to make use of.
“Ultimately, we want developers to get excited about it”, Copeland explains. “Our end goal is for people to have content to get on and enjoy right from the get-go.”
Haptic technology has serious applications too
And while Copeland is a gamer at heart, he knows that haptic technology will have applications in other sectors. “Have you ever tried to type with a laser keyboard? It sucks, you can’t feel the keys”, Copeland laughs. NullSpace VR could change that.
The team has also looked at more professional applications for the technology. Jordan Brooks, the team’s technical lead, is especially excited about their work with the the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to help with immersion therapy for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The team is currently working on the second iteration of its full-suit prototype, but the first iteration has served them well. They were finalists for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, as well as coming in third in this year’s Intel-Cornell Cup.
Images courtesy of NullSpace VR.