How ViviTouch could change rumble technology

So touchy

Rumble technology is something that we often take for granted. The simple vibration technology has been built into most video game controllers for several years now and, for many, what was once a novelty in the N64 days is now a foregone conclusion that we often don't even notice. Indeed, often the only moment I notice my controller rumbling is when I set it on the coffee table to grab a drink, only to hear it loudly clatter during a cutscene.

By and large, rumble hasn't changed very much over the years, and generally relies on simple motors. Now, Artificial Muscle, a subsidiary of Bayer MaterialScience – no relation to Aperture Science, as far as we know – has created ViviTouch, and introduced a new wrinkle in rumble technology: Fidelity.

As I mentioned, most rumble functionality operates very simply. Motors spin lopsided weights inside of a controller (or phone), creating vibration. The size of the weights and the speed of the motors can vary the vibration somewhat, but there isn't a lot of room for differentiation.

ViviTouch hopes to change all of that using a completely different technology. ViviTouch relies on an electroactive polymer, a material that changes its shape when an electrical current is applied. Specifically, the polymer becomes thinner and increases its surface area. It's kind of hard to explain, so take a look at this:

ViviTouch works by attaching metal bands to the polymer, and in turn attaching those bands to a device. When a current passes through, the polymer expands, moving the bands and thus shaking the device. It doesn't sound very different from current technology – after all, it's still mechanical parts causing vibrations – but ViviTouch is interesting for a few reasons. First, the wafer-thin technology can be crammed into almost anything. Second, the polymer is capable of varying levels of expansion and contraction, meaning it can convey much more subtle levels of vibration than standard rumble motors.

I got to try a few different mockups, including an Xbox 360 controller. It was barely modified at all, with the tech embedded in the controller's battery compartment. In fact, I was even told that the device was essentially using the mass of the batteries to shake the controller. Though I didn't actually get to play a game, I was able to watch a reel of game and film footage to feel how the control reacted.

Rather than the one-note rumble we're all used to, I felt many different levels of vibration based on the action taking place. The demo of an engine revving was easily the most impressive. From the thrumming engine idle to punching the gas, I could actually feel the subtle crescendos of vibration.

I also got to test the Mophie Pulse, an iPod Touch peripheral that's actually already on the market. The case adds ViviTouch to all iPod functions, including the keyboard, though obviously it was designed with games in mind. I played a Labyrinth-like game in which players have to roll a metal ball through a maze by tilting the iPod. The Mophie Pulse effects were impressive, allowing me to actually feel where the ball was on the screen.

It might sound silly, but ViviTouch was actually one of the most impressive things I saw at TGS (pregnancy simulators notwithstanding). Using new technology, it actually provides a tangible improvement (pun intended) to one of gaming's most overlooked features. The possible implementations for gaming are definitely intriguing. Imagine being able to actually feel the difference between a bullet impact and nearby grenade explosion, or feeling the intensity of a character's pulse in a survival horror title. And hey, with no motors, ViviTouch even improves battery life versus traditional rumble.

After over ten years of nearly unchanged rumble technology, it's certainly time for someone to shake things up.