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The State of Haptics

by Kiril Tasseff

What is it?

For the purposes of this article, I will define “Haptics” as hand-held feedback devices which allow an individual immersed in a VR/AR experience to realistically feel the size, shape, softness, and texture of a virtual object.

Why does it make sense?

It is simply the next logical step in Virtual & Augmented Reality. Right now, VR/AR applications are largely limited to the visual only with some basic controllers providing not much beyond vibrations. Handheld Haptics are likely to be a game changer for the field and significantly enhance VR/AR experiences all around.

Form factor

Most new Haptics products under development currently fall within 3 broad categories and these are:

  • Gloves - devices made of flexible fabric, which fit the shape of the hand and let the fingers move individually.
  • Thimble - devices attached directly to the fingertips. Combining several thimbles to provide feedback on several fingers simultaneously, ensuring glove-like functionality.
  • Exoskeleton - these are devices which generally comprise of a larger structure which the user wears over her/his hand, and which transmits forces to the fingers.

The design and practicality of the types of haptic devices outlined above exceed any of the desktop haptic devices used for training currently which so far have not entered the training world at scale due to high costs, complex setup and difficulty of use.

What is out there?

There are a healthy number of start-ups in the Haptics space and the below table summarises some of the products currently on the market and/or under development (not an exhaustive list).

Name

Type

Wireless

Price

Plexus

Glove

Yes

$249

Sensorial XR

Glove

Yes

-

Senso Glove

Glove

Yes

$999

Cynteract

Glove

Yes

-

Maestro

Glove

Yes

-

BeBop Forte

Glove

Yes

-

Manus Prime II

Glove

Yes

€1,499

GoTouchVR

Thimble

Yes

-

Tactai Touch

Thimble

Yes

-

Teslasuit Glove

Exoskeleton

Yes

$5,000

CyberGrasp

Exoskeleton

No

-

Dexmo

Exoskeleton

Yes

-

HaptX

Exoskeleton

No

-

VRgluv

Exoskeleton

Yes

-

Sense Glove DK1

Exoskeleton

Yes

€2,999

HGlove

Exoskeleton

No

-

Sources: Touching Virtual Reality: a Review of Haptic Gloves and Haptic display for virtual reality: progress and challenges and websites of the listed haptic device manufacturers

Exciting areas of application

There are simply too many to list and discuss here. From telepresence supplementing robotics to facilitating remote surgery, spacecraft repairs and all sorts of high-risk jobs to gaming, every one of the hundreds of use cases probably deserves an article individually. Training is one of those prominent use cases and while sports, engineering & crafts training are all very exciting, as COO of AIBODY I am most excited about the potential improvement haptics can bring to medical training & education.

Today, we can offer students fantastic learning opportunities through a wide array of digital solutions, but our capabilities fall short of being able to offer a critical aspect in patient care, namely the physical interaction with patients. To practice such physical interaction today, students & trainees rely on a range of different devices, starting from the most basic Annie doll, desktop haptic devices such as 3D Systems’s (formerly Simbionix) highly successful Mentor series all the way to high-fidelity manikins from the likes of CAE, Laerdal & SynDaver which can cost upwards of $200,000 per unit. Haptic technologies can obviously disrupt this market. With a well-established ecosystem, streamlined development and increased sophistication, virtual manikins could offer enhanced capabilities at a fraction of the cost. As the development of complex objects with haptic response becomes easier over the next decade or so, we are likely to see a significant shift from physical to virtual training aids. Naturally, such virtual training aids will increase their sophistication exponentially far surpassing anything a physical training aid can offer and bring vast improvements to medical training which will ultimately drive better patient outcomes.

Pain points & outlook

As expected from any young and emerging ecosystem, development is slow, cumbersome, and lacking in quality. There is still a lot of difficulty in creating accurate algorithms for impact of motion, touch, force etc on different surfaces as well as models capable of simulating a realistic feel to surfaces with unique textures, firmness etc. It is a highly complex task. Creating a realistic feeling of the weight of an object, for example,  is very tricky although exoskeletal devices and whole-body suits are already making some progress in this area. Most crucially, large scale datasets/libraries for different materials & objects (shape, size, smoothness, temperature etc) do not yet exist to streamline development.

In summary, we have not quite figured it out yet, but I am bullish on Haptics. All the pre-requisites are there and a well-coordinated multi-disciplinary approach to the development of these technologies, underpinned by strong demand from high-value use cases, will surely deliver some very tangible results before the next decade is out.

If you would like to read a more complete review of other haptic technologies, check out this great article in the Smithsonian Magazine or dive deeper with this fantastic paper on the subject.