CES 2017: AxonVR Brings Touch and Temperature to VR

Hot-and-cold haptic touch makes VR feel real—and spectacular

5 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

An editor wears a set of VR googles while sitting in front of an ominous large metal box
Photo: Evan Ackerman

This is my tenth year at CES. Every year, I spend much of the show wondering why I put myself through it. And then, maybe once per show, I get reminded of why I’m so lucky to be here doing what I do.

Last night, AxonVR reminded me that technology can be absolutely magical when a tiny virtual deer that took a warm and fluffy nap on my outstretched palm.

We use the term virtual reality to refer to headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive: they make it look, and sound, like you’re in a virtual world. As much of an achievment as it is to fool our sight and hearing, we have other senses that we use to experience reality. The vast majority of VR systems completely ignore these senses, like touch, because they’re even more challenging to replicate: I mean, how the heck could you possibly create an arbitrary touch sensation instantly on demand? I have no idea. But AxonVR does.

A large shiny metal box sits on a small table. Its is festooned with cables and readouts. A black shelf protrudes from the side facing the camera.Photo: Evan Ackerman

This monster is AxonVR’s HaptX system. It’s an enormous metal box with some buttons and blinking lights, and it occasionally makes ominous noises. In case you can’t tell from the way it looks, it’s very much a prototype. You put on a HTC Vive headset, and then stick your left hand into that black protruding rectangle at the front, palm up.

Both IEEE Spectrum editor Amy Nordrum and I tried this thing out, and we really had no idea what to expect: AxonVR wouldn’t tell us exactly what was going to happen beforehand, almost certainly so they could watch us totally freak out, because we totally freaked out. Or at least, I did; Amy was much more professional about the whole thing.

Here’s how she describes the experience:

I poke an apple and bring it over to drop it on my left hand. Immediately, I feel the familiar shape of an apple in my hand. It's round and smooth on every side, just like it looks. Neat.

Next, I select a nondescript cube and place it in my palm. I feel its slight weight. Then, it starts to change colors. First it’s red, and my hand feels warmer. Then it’s blue and my hand is cooler. The change in color and the change in sensation happens simultaneously. I wasn't expecting to feel a temperature gradient through this haptic VR system, and it’s a pleasant surprise.

I see a grenade on the table and drop it on my hand. The grenade erupts and spews flames down, engulfing my palm and fingers. In addition to feeling the heat, I feel that heat come in waves as the flames spread over my hand.

The obvious next choice is a large piece of ice waiting helpfully on the table. It settles in my hand with a soothing chill. I move it across my fingers and over my palm, and the sensation follows with no detectable latency.

Then, I select an object I’ve been avoiding— a spider, with its angled legs and erratic movements. The lightness of the spider’s legs, spread over the eight points of its wide stance, immediately transfers to my palm. Then, the spider starts to move. It picks up its front two legs and I feel a difference in sensation, with perhaps slightly more weight at the other six points. The spider shuffles around and I feel its many legs, like eight little pencil points pressing lightly on my palm.

Lastly, I select a miniature deer, beige with a large rack of black antlers, that has been resting off to the side since I began the demo. I drop the deer into my hand and feel its hooves plant firmly in my palm. The sensation is not at all like the spider, and it shouldn’t be, with more heft behind each hoof. The deer fidgets and I feel its weight shift in my palm as it turns, and the stroke of a hoof when it starts to paw at my hand.

Then, the deer starts to lay down. Its legs fold up beneath it and its furry belly rests in the center of my palm. I can feel it breathe, and the spot on my hand where it’s resting starts to warm. The experience of holding a tiny deer in my hand and feeling its hooves is a neat trick, but the ability to actually feel it breathe and sense the warmth of its furry body brings on an entirely different dimension of emotion. It feels like my pet, and I want to keep it.

The demo ends with a grand finale whereby a flying dragon alights on the top of the silver box in front of me and blows a mouthful of flames onto my hand with spectacular flair. It is a good dragon, and the flames feel sufficiently fiery. Still, it is that tiny deer that leaves the fondest impression, and leave me feeling blown away at the sensitivity and fidelity of the AxonVR haptic technology.

Somehow, this  mystery box is able to replicate tactile and thermal sensations, with force feedback. It did it all at once, and very compellingly. I spent most of the demo giggling like a little kid. The resolution of the tactile sensations was spectacular, from the edges of a cube, to the roundness of an apple, to the tiny prancing hooves of the deer. And when the deer tucked its little hooves underneath itself laid down, I could feel how warm and soft its belly was. The warmth was immediate, just like you’d expect, and it was the same with the dragon blowing fire, or the ice cube sliding around my palm: there wasn’t any noticeable latency, and the thermal sensations were powerful enough to be completely convincing. Ice felt like ice feels, and fire feels like you’d imagine fire feeling if you could hold it without actually burning yourself.

Saying that AxonVR has come up with a convincing simulation would be underselling what the HaptX experience is like. Other haptic systems we’ve tried require some (or occasionally lots of) imagination to transform a generalized touch sensation into something that matches what you’re seeing inside of your VR headset. With AxonVR, the touch sensation is presented with such precision and specificity that I’m tempted to say that imagination isn’t even necessary: or rather, I can’t imagine how anything short of a full-on Star Trek holodeck would be able to make a tiny deer that feels any more real than the one that napped on my palm last night.

We’re as curious as you probably are about what, exactly, is inside that enormous box. Personally, I think it’s suspicious that the box is just large enough to contain an apple, an ice cube, a very large spider, a very small deer, and a dragon, because that would explain how it works as well as it does. AxonVR mentioned something about “an array of microfluidic actuators,” but we’ve been promised more details once things calm down a bit after CES.

While what we tried out last night is certainly futuristic all by itself, AxonVR’s website promises even more, including an entire haptic exoskeleton that allows you to feel force over your entire body. This video from last April shows a bonkers concept image of what their final system might look like, along with a general description of the tech and some behind the scenes on the hardware itself:

AxonVR closed a $5.8 million seed round of funding last month, which is a lot, although not a surprising amount assuming they let prospective investors spend five minutes with a hand in that magic box. The company is looking at several different potential markets, including design and manufacturing, training and simulation, and location-based entertainment. That last one is where you’re most likely to be able to experience this for yourself: AxonVR’s press materials suggest that the company is not imagining you would have their system in your home, but more likely, you’ll find it at arcades or theme parks. There’s no timeline for any of this quite yet, but AxonVR is working on partnerships, and we’re expecting additional announcements later this year.

We can’t wait.

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