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What's next? - The coolest motion controller tech you've ever seen

Naysayers will tell you that motion gaming is a gimmick; it doesn't appeal to the hardcore crowd, and no one can make real games that support the tech. But don't forget: More than 100 million people were perfectly okay spending a couple hundred bucks on a Nintendo Wii so they didn't have to drive anywhere to go bowling. At least one person accidentally died for the chance to own the then-new console back when it launched in late 2006. So there must be some value in waving a piece of plastic in front of a television to make stuff happen on-screen.

For many, that value is in the accessibility that comes with motion controls. Think about what happens when you hand a gamepad to friends or family who don't play games on the reg--watching them try to figure out how to use two analog sticks is like watching a person with one arm trying to pat his head and rub his belly at the same time. For those of us who grew up gaming, controlling a character's movement independently from a free-moving camera is easy. But it's nigh impossible for those who are just starting to get into gaming. That's exactly what happened to Will Provancher, a professor at the University of Utah.

"Some of the difficulties I had when I first started playing [games]--because I hadn't really played since I was doing arcade stuff in college and when I was younger, was learning the bi-manual thumbsticks," Provancher says. "It's a very difficult thing."

So for him, motion controlled games made sense. People can play a game merely by imitating real-life motions they're already familiar with. But as many Wii owners will likely admit, there's something… off about the whole experience once the initial excitement of using a motion controller for the first time wanes. You can imitate your bowling approach or tennis swing perfectly, but without consistent haptic feedback (that is, feedback that taps into your sense of touch), you're just getting all of the motion with none of the associated resistance.

Provancher, whose PhD research just so happens to be in the field of haptics, began to think about the ways in which new feedback technology could be layered over already-existing motion controllers--and thus his company Tactical Haptics was born. The first of its products: Reactive Grip, a series of cylindrical, sliding bars that manipulate the skin on your hand to imitate weight and torque.

"We've been working on this line of research now for about five years," Provancher says. "The major jump is really in making the motion of the device represent physical interaction. Say you have a baseball bat in your hand. If you were to go and swing that through some range of motion, what you're experiencing is two things: One is the force that your muscles are exerting, and the second is the forces experienced through the skin that you're grasping the bat with.

"While we're not going and applying any external forces on you, what we are doing is mimicking those reaction forces in your hand," he says. "Those reaction forces are pretty simple. As you're swinging around and you stop, you're applying a torque on the baseball bat that stretches the skin on one side of your hand in one direction and stretches the skin on the other side of your hand in the opposite direction."

In other words, imagine playing the tennis game in Wii Sports. Everytime you move the controller--the tennis racket--the Reactive Grip bars move in such a way that they simulate the weight and movement of the racket; and when you hit the virtual ball, a quick pulse of those bars imitates the torque produced by the collision, the same you'd feel if you were actually playing a real game of tennis. This is a far more realistic sensation than, say, the simple vibrations built into traditional rumble motors.

Of course, Reactive Grip isn't some aftermarket product you can go out and buy, then slap onto existing motion controllers. It's still in the prototyping phase, and Provancher hopes to take it to Kickstarter sometime in the fall. Even if production is funded, he'll have to work out deals with the likes of Sony and Nintendo to implement a version of the product that'll work with their motion controllers.

He has his reservations, of course--there are plenty of the aforementioned naysayers who will decry anything related to motion gaming. But with any luck, there'll be enough people interested in the advancement of motion technology to make Reactive Grip a reality.

"Haptics is one of these things that you have to feel to believe," Provancher says. "You see people just light up when they experience this for the first time--maybe because they're just expecting vibration feedback again, and they're pleasantly surprised that it's something different." 

So what do you think? After watching the video above, is this something that would make you more interested in motion gaming? Or do you find it impossible to care about the concept at all? Let us know in the comments below, and check out Tactical Haptics for more info on Reactive Grip.

What's Next? is a bi-weekly column exploring the future of gaming tech. 

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19 comments

  • SuperSATA - September 1, 2013 7:32 a.m.

    Ahh, I remember the days a few summers ago when I was patiently waiting for Wii Sports Resort to come out and I could use the Wii motion plus thing. I remember thinking it was the best thing ever. But now this is here. And probably after a few years, there will be something else to replace this. XD Btw, it might do you good to make it wireless.
  • TacticalHaptics - September 1, 2013 4:38 p.m.

    We totally agree that a wireless version will make it even better, so that's what we're shooting for bin our first commercial version. However, our initial developer kit will need to be wired (to keep cost down, for better reliability, and to get something out sooner).
  • GameConnoisseur - August 31, 2013 11:48 p.m.

    Oculus Rift VR + Virtuix Omni + Reactive Grip = Complete Immersion, and will revolutionize gaming as we know it!
  • TacticalHaptics - August 31, 2013 11:55 p.m.

    We hope so. :-)
  • son-c-loya - August 31, 2013 6:08 p.m.

    let it be
  • dangomushi - August 31, 2013 8:18 a.m.

    Don't knock it till you try it. Motion control is a problem, but I'm happy to see people trying to solve it. Those face buttons and analog sticks look kinda difficult to get to on this model if you still intend on having your hand over the grip.
  • TacticalHaptics - August 31, 2013 12:22 p.m.

    Dangomushi, We've significantly improved the ergonomics in our current prototypes, with a smaller handle (& entire device) and ergonomically placed thumbstick, buttons, and trigger. The reason for the poor thumbstick/button ergonomics and huge size on the prototype shown on this page (which was quickly put together in the few weeks before the March 2013 Game Developers Conference GDC) and used large chunks of an existing motion controller (the Razer Hydra), including the exact trigger, thumbstick, and buttons all mounted to the same circuit board as in the Hydra. Our great challenge will be to get our device down to a cost that people will "back" on kickstarter, which will be tough because everyone compares our technology and motion controller to tell cost of a Wii-mote ($40), which has far cheaper components than our device (all which which we also need) and are produced in the 100s of thousands (making the $50,000 cost of tooling insignificant). It will be hard to put our haptic motion controller on Kickstarter for less than $150 unless we get well over 1,000 backers.
  • dangomushi - August 31, 2013 10:26 p.m.

    I wish you success. I suppose the most important (and difficult) thing is having major consoles and developers pledging support for your concept. Until then, its just a good idea.
  • Swedish_Chef - August 31, 2013 12:26 a.m.

    Been waiting for a motion controller like this for a while, no matter how 1:1 or how little input lag motion controllers have they always feel off to me due to the lack of weight or resistance being felt.
  • RodrigoHLC - August 30, 2013 8:38 p.m.

    Since we're on the topics of motion gaming, I'll tell you about two dreams of mine I can't believe I haven't yet had the chance to fulfill; 1st: I can't believe they still haven't at least ported Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast to be played with a motion controller like the wii's. Seriously, what the fuck? I've been waiting for that ever since the Wii was called the Revolution (and I'm not kidding, that was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I read about it) 2nd: The only thing missing would be a glove controller. Lower the pitchforks please. I know we've had some bad experiences in the past ("It's so bad...") but I really think we have the necessary techonology available right now in order to make it work. I'm talking about a glove (and nothing fancy when it comes to gloves, just some sort of fabric that covers your hand and fingers) that has sensors on each finger, and it tracks the position, movement and speed of the hand, as well as the position of the fingers. Imagine using Bioshock's plasmids with it! It would register when you do the appropiate gesture to use the lightning bolt, when you snap your fingers to set things on fire, etc. Or, again, JKII. You could use force push, force pull, jedi mind tricks, lightning bolts, choking and speed with it! It would be THE SHIT. And I seriously think this is something that could be made RIGHT NOW with the techonology we have available.
  • TacticalHaptics - August 31, 2013 12:29 p.m.

    RodrigoHLC, We'd love to do a full jedi lightsaber or sword fighting game with a developer. We've already talked talkedttalkedto some researchers at Disney, but it appears this stuff is on hold. We may look into glove-based interfaces in in the future, but it will be challenging enough just to get significant improvements put into the controller itself. A good glove is even more challenging... and potentially expensive.
  • usmovers_02 - August 30, 2013 4:59 p.m.

    I can't see motion controls ever being a long term gaming solution w/o true feedback. When I swing a sword and hit a rock wall my sword needs to stop, not keep going and shake my hand a little bit. Pressing a button may not simulate the intended action at all but at least the visual response makes sense.
  • TacticalHaptics - August 30, 2013 2:41 p.m.

    Thanks for the coverage Ryan! While I agree with ds1331 that using a motion controller will never be faster than pushing a button, on the other hand people will never confuse pushing a button with feeling the impact and resistance when you strike your opponent or draw back on your bow when playing Skyrim (Elder Scrolls). Really this may all come down to preference. And while motion controllers won't beat out a regular game controller (just the same as PC gamers will routinely blow away console gamers in FPS games) on performance, our goal is simply to create a better gaming EXPERIENCE (and to do this in a way that will be affordable when it gets to mass markets). Our goal is to provide a more engaging experience by providing more realistic touch feedback, taking the lead from recent developments in the consumer Virtual Reality (VR) domain that Oculus VR has spearheaded with its $300 Stereoscopic goggles, the Rift, to provide a more immersive visual experience. More recently, the Virtuix Omni Treadmill has also added a new dimension to this space with their recent successful kickstarter campaign. We hope to be able to launch our own kickstarter campaign this fall, which is currently aimed to happen in late October... By the way, we've got a nice sleek design for the handle of our motion controller now and will be supporting Sixense's STEM motion tracking system that they will be putting on Kickstarter on Sept. 12. For updates on our technology, check out our facebook page (Facebook/TacticalHaptics) and twitter feeds (@TacticalHaptics).
  • db1331 - August 30, 2013 1:10 p.m.

    Motion controls will always fail. Swinging your arm or waving your hand will never be as fast, accurate, and responsive as pressing a button. Motion control is a solution looking for a problem. End of story. We won't see a marked improvement in video game control tech until we can start controlling things with our thoughts. For example, you see that you only have one shell left in your shotgun and you think, "I need to reload" and your character just does it. And that's still a long ways off. And even if that tech were available, it would still have to be able to function at least as quickly as a person can push a button to be viable.
  • brickman409 - August 30, 2013 2:45 p.m.

    If you think about it, video games themselves are just solutions looking for problems. There's no real need for video games at all. but that doesn't mean we should drop support for them. Video games are something fun, and that's why we play them. Same thing with motion controls, they may not be as accurate or responsive as buttons, but they're just more fun. And that's why some people like them and that's why things like Kinect and Wii sold like crazy.
  • RodrigoHLC - August 30, 2013 8:08 p.m.

    End of the problem? I disagree. Maybe not all gamers do, but I care a great deal about immersion when I'm playing a game. And I love gamepads as much as the next gamer, but motion controller DONE RIGHT, and when done IN AN APPROPIATE GAME, could take immersion to an incredible level. The idea of playing a game with your thoughts, for example, seems really boring to me. But this motion control trinity (Omni-Oculus-Reactive Grip) could change gaming forever (and I don't mean games as we know them will disappear, I'm saying that, in addition to them, we will have also a whole lot of games we can play with this technology) I would very much rather play Bioshock with the Oculus to feel like I'm there, with the Omni to feel like I'm moving there, and of course this new Reactive Grip technology combined with motion controllers would be the cherry on top of the immersion ice-cream. The only thing I would be lacking would be Men In Black's neuralizer to erase my memory and so that the whole game would be new to me once again lol. I'm sure watching that first splicer scream at me from outside of the batysphere's window and then trying to get inside would make me shit my pants. And I wouldn't mind my character reloading slower, or swapping weapons slower because of the fact that it's me doing it. It's (not even) a concession I'm willing to make. I don't understand why you're so negative with regars to the technology either. Saying that Swinging your arm or waving your hand will never be as accurate, and responsive as pressing a button seems to me as someone in the 90s saying "it will always take years to watching a video with this internet thing".
  • Fro4show - August 30, 2013 12:06 p.m.

    I didn't realize how important haptic feedback was to me until PS3 was out with its non-dualshock controllers. Makes me wonder if this would really be a game-changer for me in the future.

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