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Game Controller Talks To You By Stretching Your Skin

A novel system gives these controllers surreal haptic feedback, instead of just rumbling.

As controllers like Kinect have enabled natural and untethered gestures, it’s only made one shortcoming of gaming more apparent: a lack of tactile feedback. Beyond controllers that vibrate, we’ve got nothing. And as we approach photo-realistic worlds rendered with perfect physics in real time, boy does it feel like we’ve overlooked something important.

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William Provancher, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at University of Utah, has a promising idea for the next generation of haptic feedback, and most importantly, it’s designed to work in the ubiquitous, dual-stick controller of today’s gaming consoles.

It dawned on me that stretch feedback might help me pick up gaming quicker.

His team has figured out that, by placing a small, motorized “tactor” on top of a directional stick–imagine one of those infamous Thinkpad mousing nubs being stuck on a thumb stick–they can stretch the skin on a player’s fingertips, and use that stretching to communicate a whole other level of sensation. (The technical name is skin-stretch feedback or shear feedback.)

“I had been working on research on providing direction cues using skin stretch on the fingertips for a few years at the point when I started playing video games,” Provancher tells Co.Design. “And at age 38 I had a heck of a time picking up how to play games like Call of Duty, that require dual thumbstick input. It dawned on me that providing feedback similar to what I’d been working on in my lab might help me pick up gaming quicker.”

Just about a year later, his lab has figured out all sorts of uses for the technology. Not only has research shown that the tactors can communicate simple cues like “turn left!” just as well as spoken audio, the tactors can do fun, immersive stuff, too: bounce in response to explosions, drift back and forth to mimic ocean waves and even wiggle when a virtual fisherman has a bite on his line.

At the moment, Provancher is shopping around the technology in hopes of sneaking it into the next wave of consoles. Most likely, he’s a bit too late. And that’s a shame, as my thumbs are in serious need of a facelift.

[Hat tip: Eureka Alert]

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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