HaptX promises to make your virtual hands feel like real ones

The gloves are pretty bulky, though.

The holy grail of VR is immersion: to truly feel like you're in a virtual world. While most modern VR headsets do a pretty good job of this, the experience isn't perfect. One problem standing in the way of true immersion are the controllers. They're OK for basic tasks like picking up objects, but they still feel a little unnatural. Even VR gloves like the Manus offer only vibration feedback; it lets you know you've touched something, but not what you're touching. A new startup, however, aims to change that. It's introducing a pair of gloves that promises to make your virtual hands feel just like real ones.

The gloves are made by HaptX, which used to be known as AxonVR. It changed its name partially because there are a lot of other companies that are using the name Axon -- it's the name of a phone, a trucking company and a maker of non-lethal weapons. HaptX also happens to be the name of the technology that makes the realistic touch possible.

When the company says "realistic touch," it means the gloves let you feel the shape, texture and even temperature of whatever you're holding -- you can even feel if an object is hard or soft. That's right; the gloves will actually prevent your hand from going through virtual objects.

At the heart of the technology is microfluidics, which is a study of how fluids move through small, sub-millimeter channels. HaptX CEO and co-founder Jake Rubin spent several years at Cal Poly researching the subject, along with the company's other co-founder, Dr. Robert Crockett. This led to the creation of the HaptX skin, which is made up of hundreds of tiny little air pockets. Whenever you touch something in the virtual world, these air bubbles -- also known as haptic actuators -- inflate, displacing your skin in the same way a real object would. The actuators can be woven into fabric, which results in what Rubin and co. call the HaptX smart textile.

"These are basically tiny little haptic pixels," said Jake Rubin, CEO and founder of HaptX. "And by changing their pressure over time, very quickly, we can create any sensation in your skin." He likens it to a visual display, with each pixel changing in color to create an image. He explained that with the HaptX gloves, the pixels are tiny and in high density near the fingers -- where the most sensitivity is needed -- and larger and lower density at the palm.

The sensitivity of the displacement can be up to 2 millimeters, which Rubin said is much higher of than that of other VR gloves. Other haptic gloves like the GloveOne and the aforementioned Manus use vibrating motors that buzz or rumble, the Teslasuit uses electrodes that deliver small electric shocks, and still others like the VRgluv use motors that provide resistance on the fingers. None of these, according to Rubin, offer the same accuracy and finesse as the HaptX.

I tried a prototype of the gloves, and I was trepidatious at first. For one, the test glove was too big for my hands -- Rubin says most of the HaptX engineers have larger mitts than I do. The issue is that in order for the HaptX material to work, my fingers need to touch the glove's fingertips.

After some pulling, however, my hand fit. The glove was made out of a mesh fabric on the inside and a Vive receiver was attached to the outside; my fingertips were secured by what felt like plastic clamps. The glove was attached to a wire connecting to a large Xbox-like machine. This, Rubin said, houses all the valves to control air flow.

The glove felt bulky, heavy and a little uncomfortable. Rubin tells me that the final version will come in different sizes and be slimmed down, so hopefully, this is only an issue with the prototype.

Then, I had an HTC Vive strapped to my head and the HaptX folks fired up the demo. A small farm appeared in front of me, with raining clouds, a barn and a wheat field. I placed my hand underneath one of the clouds and immediately felt light raindrops. I waved my hand through the wheat field and felt every strand run through my fingers.

Next, a small fox ran out. When I placed my palm in front of it, it leapt into my hand, giving me a ticklish sensation as it ran around. When the fox finally lay down, I felt its whole body in the palm of my hand. Next, a huge spider crawled into view; it too climbed onto my hand. Its eight legs felt so fuzzy and realistic that it sent shivers up my spine, and I cringed in reaction.

I also squeezed the clouds and the rocks to see which was softer. I felt more resistance with the rocks but still managed to close my fingers into a fist, forcing the rocks to slip out of my hand. Ideally, I shouldn't be able to close my fingers at all. Rubin said that could be because the glove didn't fit my hand well enough in the first place.

Despite the unpleasant feeling of the glove, I was surprised by how realistic the touch sensations felt. It's unlike any other VR controller I've tried. That said, there are a few flaws. For one, the gloves need to be attached to the aforementioned box. Rubin said they could be put it in a backpack for untethered applications when doing room-scale VR, but that sounds a little clunky. He thinks the technology will get to the point where they won't need a box, but it's not there yet.

Also, the prototype I tried didn't have a temperature setting, because that version uses water instead of air. Rubin said the company is focusing on the non-temperature version of the gloves so it can get them to market sooner.

As impressive as the HaptX gloves felt, Rubin doesn't intend for them to be used for video games, at least not yet. Right now, Rubin is marketing HaptX to be used for commercial applications like training simulation in medical, military and industrial spaces, location-based entertainment for theme parks, and design and manufacturing using telerobotics. This is because, in those applications, fidelity and finesse are way more important than in gaming.

"Some of these full-scale military simulators cost tens of millions of dollars," said Rubin. "And there are these entertainment companies that are overlaying VR on physical environments but you still need a very large room. It's not very scalable." With something like HaptX, however, all you'd need to is change the software. He said that HaptX can be used when prototyping products, so manufacturers can "feel" what a car's interior is like, for example.

Rubin hopes to release the first version of the gloves starting next year. He doesn't rule out the technology trickling down to consumers, but that's not the company's focus. "We expect the price to come down quickly over a course of two to three years, to the point where consumers can have it," he said. "It may never be, you know, $100 but it should be cheap enough within a couple of years that a consumer could certainly purchase and own this kind of technology."

Interestingly, Rubin also said it's possible for the HaptX material to be built into a full bodysuit. "When you combine these existing arm exoskeletons, our haptic wearables and a locomotion solution like an omnidirectional treadmill or a lower-body exoskeleton, it would get you very close to a holodeck -- a full immersion in a virtual environment."