We've been following Tactical Haptics and its innovative VR controller for a few years now. The controller holds our interest because it adds an entirely new dimension to VR. Rather than just vibrating with an unsatisfying, one-dimensional buzz like most "haptic" controllers do, it can simulate actual forces, by moving and twisting in your hand in response to what's going on in the game.
At CES this week, Tactical Haptics will be introducing a new version of the controller that includes the haptic cleverness but also features the ability to be completely reconfigured on the fly. Gamepad? Steering wheel? Blaster pistol? Machine gun? It can be all of those things, while providing realistic force feedback for each one.
The Tactical Haptics controllers have always been a little bit weird looking, but this latest generation is the weirdest yet. There are a few reasons for this— the first is that the controllers are designed to be reconfigurable; you can snap them together through semi-rigid mechanical couplings to create different poses. For example, the two controllers can be attached front to back to make a two-handed heavy machine gun, or attached side to side to make a steering wheel. This can be done on the fly, if you need to drop your laser rifle and jump into your spaceship for a fast getaway. Tactical Haptics reps told us that they saw a bunch of accessories out there that can adapt controllers into specific configurations, but they wanted instead to make the VR experience more immersive by allowing you to adapt your controller dynamically depending on what you want to do with it in-game. It was a challenge to make this work while keeping the controllers ergonomic and usable for all shapes and sizes of gamers, but Tactical Haptics is confident that its current iteration is an effective compromise.
Example configurations of Tactical Haptics’ controllers, including (clockwise from upper left) separated, gamepad or steering wheel, machine gun, and sword and shield.Photos: Tactical Haptics
Reason number two that the controllers are weird looking is that they're designed for use in VR, which means that they need to have integrated motion tracking. At this stage (that would be, the dev kit stage), Tactical Haptics is relying on established third parties to do the tracking. Optitrack sensors are integrated for research or enterprise use, but for gaming, the Tactical Haptics controllers include holders that accept the hand controllers for both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Touch.
And then there's the haptics, of course. The Tactical Haptics controllers are held upright (mostly) and gripped such that your palm and fingers envelop their handles. The handles have actuated plates on them that slide up and down, and it's these plates that your hands are gripping against. When the plates move, they create friction and shear forces against your hand, stimulating tactile illusions of inertial forces, elasticity, impacts, and more. We've tried these controllers before, and they’re amazing: when you swing a virtual sword, you can feel its weight as it moves. When that sword hits something, you feel the shock. This is a video of an old version of the controller, but it does a good job of illustrating how it works:
Trying to put haptic experiences into words is always dissatisfying, for both the writer and the reader. I can't do much more than say, “I've tried this, and it's both very convincing and entirely unlike any other haptic control system I've ever used,” and you can't do all that much more than say, “er, okay...?” It's like VR— there isn't really a way to explain it, you just need to find some way of giving a try.
The good news and bad news is that you might have an opportunity to test out one of these controllers for yourself, but not because there's likely to be a consumer version any time soon. Tactical Haptics says that in 2018, it'll be focused on production and partnerships in the location-based entertainment space, which means arcades. I haven't been into an arcade since I got a computer that I could play games on at home, but the fact that arcades (evidently) still exist means that they must be offering some unique experiences. And tactical Haptics' controller is certainly one of those.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.