The release of Ready Player One this weekend is a significant moment for the virtual reality industry. Ernest Cline's bestselling science fiction adventure will achieve a Spielberg-fueled launch to new heights of popular culture fame. It describes a world where living in the virtual reality of the OASIS becomes preferable to living within a dystopian future society riddled by war and energy crises. The movie will present a VR-driven future that, like all good science fiction writing, draws on strong familiar themes recognizable by everyone today, right down to the hardware described in the film.
In the story, the OASIS can be accessed virtually free of charge by anybody that is in possession of both an OASIS visor and a pair of haptic gloves. The visor already looks familiar. Whilst they are smaller and lighter, with greatly improved performance over the devices of today, anybody with $800 / £500 to spare can own a similar looking headset as soon as their favorite online retailer can ship it to them. The differences between today's technology and that described in the visor are well characterized, and there are already billions of dollars being spent in efforts to close the gap.
The other essential item for accessing the OASIS is a pair of haptic gloves. In Cline's own words, "When you picked up objects, opened doors, or operated vehicles, the haptic gloves made you feel these nonexistent objects and surfaces as if they were really right there in front of you." (Ready Player One, p.58). Those that can afford it can then upgrade to higher levels of immersivity, with full-body suits, harnesses, omni-treadmills and even smell towers, built to serve the user's every touch, smell, move and desire.
These products all have various reference points within VR offerings today. The standard haptics offering within consumer VR today is a pair of controllers (HTC's Vive Controller, Oculus Touch & Sony's PlayStation Move, etc.) containing various sensors and inertial haptic feedback driven by one of several types of electromagnetic motor. These controllers are a simple commercial starting point, and already there are many types of additional accessories and configurations that add variety to the haptics offerings. For example, Tactical Haptics have demonstrated reconfigurable controllers which integrate shear force surface haptics as accessories on top of existing VR controllers. Both the controller designs and the haptic sensations which they enable are becoming more diverse.
The next step is to go from controllers to wearable systems such as rings or gloves, and ultimately towards apparel. It is possible to integrate similar electromagnetic motors into rings (e.g. GoTouch VR) or into gloves (e.g. Virtuix), but development increasingly tends towards the use of flexible actuators which can better match the properties of the textiles and skin with which they interact. One prominent example of this is the piezoelectric EAP (electroactive polymer) from Novasentis, who are working with many leading VR players on future product opportunities. This can be extended up to full-body apparel, where different types of actuator can be integrated throughout an entire suit (e.g. see TeslaSuit's solution, which uses direct electrical stimulation of the muscles).
Up one step further and the systems become larger, more bespoke and more expensive. Custom haptics controllers and motion simulators have been developed to allow the user to experience the forces and sensation associated with different virtual scenarios. These range from passive systems (e.g. Icaros' personal flight simulator) through personal and even multiplayer simulators, not unlike those within video arcades or VR theme park attractions. Omni-treadmills will become part of this, sensing the direction of motion and then literally moving the floor under the user to enable full motion in VR. We have now reached the very high end of the industry, with extremely high prices and severely limited availability to a much greater extent than anything suggested in Ready Player One.
As the number of users, sophistication of content, and total revenue in VR grows, these higher end haptics options will, in many cases, begin to see the increases in volumes and drop in prices that we can expect from any growing hardware industry. However, from a development point of view, it is important to focus on the areas in which today's offerings are fundamentally lacking. To do this, we must break "haptics" into parts including tactile and kinaesthetic, plus other categories such as thermal sensation. The majority of haptic solutions, and nearly all of the consumer-ready haptics options today, are tactile. This includes any kind of vibration or surface textural change where there is no net force applied to the user. Where net force is applied, this is kinaesthetic feedback. This is typically deployed via devices such as body-anchored exoskeletons, or grounded manipulandums or robotic systems. A broad overview of the different categories of tactile and kinaesthetic devices used for haptics in VR today is shown in the image.
Source: IDTechEx Research report "Haptics 2018-2028: Technologies, Markets and Players" (www.IDTechEx.com/haptics)
However, this classification outlines one key difference between the haptics devices in Ready Player One and those in our reality today. Nearly all of the consumer-ready products, and even those which are pre-commercial but likely to reach consumer markets within the next year or two, involve tactile feedback. Kinaesthetic feedback (i.e. where the net force of the actuator on the body is non-zero) is found in high end and custom systems, but is severely lacking in accessible consumer products. Advanced haptics features such a thermal variation are even rare in high end systems.
This is far from saying that creating the kinds of sensations described in Ready Player One are impossible. In fact, we can look to companies like HaptX (formerly Axon VR) who develop high end haptics solutions involving tactile, kinaesthetic and thermal feedback, achieved by combining several actuator technologies together. Today their efforts focus on gloves, but ultimately their goal is to produce products very similar to the full body haptics suits described in Ready Player One. In fact, Cline's description in the book referring to "an elaborate exoskeleton" for kinaesthetic feedback combined with "a web like network of miniature actuators" against the skin is relatively close to a likely design strategy if you asked this suit to be developed today (maybe with some additional microfluidics).
However, whilst these products could be achievable, they are far from being shipped as part of consumer VR bundles. For example, HaptX's gloves will remain as extremely high end devices (e.g. for military simulation) for the foreseeable future, costing several orders of magnitude more than would be tolerable for a consumer device. We will rely on elements of technology like this eventually trickling down to consumer markets before we can expect to touch and feel our way through our own virtual Easter egg hunts.
As Ready Player One is released in cinemas around the world, IDTechEx are also releasing their latest market research report after four years covering the haptics industry. Haptics 2018-2028: Technologies, Markets and Players details the entire haptics industry today, including description and benchmarking of different haptics technologies, data and forecasting on haptics markets, and 35 different company profiles (as part of 66 companies covered). For example, IDTechEx has included interviews and/or other primary research from each of the companies mentioned in this article, detailing aspects of their achievement and technology, plus providing critical analyses of their progress via ranking and SWOT analyses. This report is one of nearly 100 high quality market research reports offered by IDTechEx, and fits alongside parallel topics such as Augmented, Mixed and Virtual Reality, Wearable Technology and other User Interfaces reports to provide comprehensive coverage as these industries evolve.
Top image source: Haptx
Learn more at the next leading event on the topic: Healthcare Sensor Innovations USA 2020 on 18 - 19 Nov 2020 at Santa Clara Convention Center, CA, USA hosted by IDTechEx.