Every now and then, we come across a new attempt to bring haptic feedback to VR, but we've yet to see one that's fully convincing; those that are still around tend to be both pricey and far from ready for the market. Well, this is apparently no longer the case thanks to bHaptics. At HTC Vive X demo day in Shanghai, I got some hands-on time with this Korean startup's TactSuit, a wireless kit consisting of a haptic mask (which is a rarity), two haptic sleeves and a haptic vest. The fascinating part here is that it comes with a total of 87 feedback points, which is a lot more generous than what the other suits offer. It'll also cost less than its direct competitor, Nullspace VR's $549 Hardlight suit which only has 16 feedback points.
The TactSuit's 87 feedback points are powered by eccentric rotating mass vibration motors. These actuators are distributed as follows: there are seven on the face, 20 on the front of the vest, another 20 on the back, and 20 on each sleeve. The obvious advantage with such a high density of feedback points is that games can be programmed with refined haptic feedback for a more immersive experience.
In other words, rather than feeling one large pad vibrating somewhere on your body, you can actually make out the cutting lines of, say, a sword or even claws from an enemy creeping up behind you. To take this to the next level, games can even be programmed so that the same cutting pattern can be mirrored to both sides of the haptic vest, in order to simulate the feel of one being cut in half. Lovely, isn't it?
Other interesting possibilities include having a snake slithering around your upper body, being punched in the face, sensing your weapon's recoil, feeling an explosion's blast wave and more. This can all be achieved by using bHaptics' dedicated haptics editing software, which appears to be quite versatile and straightforward to use, plus it works in conjunction with Unity. In a demo video, I saw a programmer drawing simple haptic feedback paths and patterns across a grid of 20 points, with the option to adjust the force of each point or path, as well as the roughness of the vibration.
Unlike most of its competition, bHaptics' TactSuit has already been tried and tested by many people. According to CEO Kiuk Gwak, almost 47,000 people used it between March and June as part of a horror game called Zombie Attack at Seoul's Lotte World amusement park. Even nowadays, this three-minute game hosts over 500 players per day on average, and it's apparently the most popular VR booth at the venue. "This is the 'real VR' that people are going to pay more [for]," Gwak added.
I was able to try the TactSuit with the same game at the HTC Vive X demo day, with the only difference being there was just one spot instead of the usual eight. The suit didn't feel too heavy and the sleeves were easy to put on, but the only thing that bothered me was the haptic mask which forced me to take off my glasses. Luckily, I managed to get a good enough eyesight with some quick adjustments on the Vive headset.
The game itself was very much the usual horror affair, featuring a bunch of slow-moving zombies that eventually have you surrounded in some deserted theme park. I'd like to think that normally I wouldn't be too bothered by such zombies, but with the TactSuit on my body, I found myself fearing for my life whenever I felt a strike on my back. As soon as I turned around, the bloody zombies were right in my face and boom! That was when I instinctively fired my shotgun into their ugly faces, and with the instantaneous recoil sensation on the haptic sleeves, those were definitely the most satisfying shots I had ever had in a VR game. Before long, I removed the headset and was greeted by a long line of curious folks waiting for their turn.
From a hardware standpoint, the TactSuit certainly succeeded in delivering an immersive experience as promised: the kit isn't clunky, the haptic feedback execution is unique and, most importantly, I didn't feel any delay. For its performance and sub-$549 price point, the TactSuit is by far the most promising haptic feedback suit to date. That said, don't expect bHaptics to be selling the whole kit to consumers any time soon. While the sleeves are available to anyone, the company is focusing on B2B as well as selling the vest and mask to developers only, but that's a good move -- it's all about getting as many games to support this suit as possible. If all goes well, you'll be seeing TactSuits pop up in your local VR arcades in the near future.
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