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What's next? Why you should give a damn about the Xbox One's Impulse Triggers

In the '80s, "rumble technology" exclusively referred to arcade racing games with vibrating seats, the kind kids played solely for the thrill of hanging on for dear life, spending quarter after quarter to see how long they could drive in pixelated grass without projectile vomiting the afternoon's lunch all over the steering wheel. Then came the Nintendo 64's Rumble Pak in 1997, an add-on that made the controller weigh an additional 800 pounds--heavy enough that you could tone your rippling biceps while gaming. The trade-off, of course, was it shook the controller a little when you'd get hit in Star Fox 64. And that blew people's minds.

Fast forward to 2013 and rumble tech hasn't changed a whole lot. It's something we expect to be built into our controllers, a standard feature we only really notice the second it's absent (ahem, PS3's shock-less Sixaxis). So when Microsoft announced that the Xbox One's controller would have additional motors located in the trigger buttons, I couldn't help but wonder how that might affect immersion for the better, if at all.

"The addition of the Impulse Triggers give gamers the unique opportunity to experience precise feedback at the most sensitive part of the human hand—making gamers more connected to their gameplay," says David Dennis, Xbox group PR manager. "Traditional rumble motors alone don't provide as rich of an experience. Just like the upgrade from analog to digital TV is so much better and more lifelike, Impulse Triggers provide a similar level of upgrade for next-generation haptic feedback."

Holy marketing speak, Batman. Still, Dennis raises some good points. While the inclusion of some extra vibrating motors in the Xbox One's controller certainly won't revolutionize gaming the way the transition to digital revolutionized television, it's bound to have a positive effect on the overall experience. Think about it: In most games that utilize rumble motors, every action yields the same amount of feedback regardless of how much force its real-life equivalent might produce. At best, some games make the gamepad to shake with varying degrees of intensity depending on the context. But when controller vibrations tell us that shooting a BB gun feels just like shooting a rocket launcher, that vibration becomes less and less meaningful over time.

In theory, the Impulse Triggers will provide a much-needed layer of precise, subtle feedback. Imagine playing a shooter where pulling the trigger on a gun results in a powerful, resistant click from the trigger on the controller. That sort of physical feedback is a far more valuable tool for immersion than anything ever produced by traditional controller rumble.

But as with current rumble capabilities, it's up to developers to support the technology. Out of all the Xbox One demos I've played so far (Ryse: Son of RomeTitanfallForza Motorsport 5Lococycle, that dragon game), only Forza actually used the Impulse Triggers. Having felt them in action myself, I'm pretty damn excited about their potential. As is Dan Greenawalt, Forza's creative director.

"All it takes is a few corners on the track in Forza Motorsport 5 to really get a feel for how the Impulse Triggers change the racing experience," Greenawalt says. "Instead of a general rumble that is felt in both hands, the rumble in each trigger is now independently controlled, and the rumble experience is more reactive than ever to reproducing what is happening on track."

He's not kidding. During my Forza 5 demo at PAX, I spent about 30 seconds driving on the track before making a beeline straight for the grass. All I wanted to do was feel how the triggers would respond to my actions--and to my delight, they provided differing degrees of feedback depending on the surface I was driving on. That feedback was often independent from the base rumble of the controller, which feels far more pronounced when activated in conjunction with the triggers. In the case of Forza, Greenawalt says those triggers potentially change the way gamers learn to handle virtual cars.

"By necessity, players learn to drive in racing games largely by relying on visual and audio feedback," he says. "That’s different from how people learn how to drive cars in real life, especially race cars--where things like G-forces and weight transfer play a huge role in how you react to the car’s performance. In real life, drivers learn just as much from the feel of the car as they do from what they see and hear.

"In Forza Motorsport 5, we use rumble in a number of different ways to simulate as many of those physical forces as we can," Greenawalt says. "The rumble found in the controller chassis itself is used to convey feedback like engine RPM, suspension bump, collisions, and so on. The triggers handle tire slip exclusively (one trigger communicates the effects of throttle on slip, the other of braking on slip). As you drive, you’ll feel undulations in road surface, changes in tire friction, and rolling over things like rumble strips and the like. The subtlety of the Impulse Trigger rumble means that alert drivers can feel a loss of traction coming early and can respond as needed to keep the car under control."

With the Xbox One's launch just around the corner, I'm curious to how many games--and to what effect--take advantage of the controller's Impulse Triggers. If used to their full potential, they could become one of the One's more advantageous features, an ace up the sleeve that no one really expects to be very significant. Of course, there's always the possibility that a few years down the road, we'll be talking about Impulse Triggers as much as we talk about traditional rumble tech--which is to say, not at all.

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

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18 comments

  • Shnubby - September 14, 2013 6:56 a.m.

    An extra bit of rumble isn't going to convince me to buy the more expensive, not as good console that you can't even play online for free.
  • Shnubby - September 14, 2013 7 a.m.

    Just learned that PS4 isn't online for free either, before everyone tries to correct me at once! Haha
  • Eightboll812 - September 14, 2013 9:42 a.m.

    They are trying to softpeddle the move to paid online play as best they can, but it's definitely moving there quickly. If you are just finding out about this, there's a lot of details and fine print. It's still much better than Gold, but definitely not nearly as "free" as it was. Notably: - There is a paywall and it is up to publishers whether their multiplayer is behind it or not (some may be free, but lets be honest, most will end up being behind the paywall) - One Plus subscription extends to all other accounts on the system (so they said) - Pretty sure Netflix and other Internet apps are still free (not behind the paywall) - Pretty sure these changes only apply to PS4, not PS3 - Still cheaper per year vs Gold, definitely a lot cheaper when you consider a shared family console situation.
  • Shnubby - September 14, 2013 12:53 p.m.

    That's not so bad then, it's really stupid having to pay to use lovefilm youtube etc on xbox 360
  • Shinn - September 14, 2013 10:21 p.m.

    One subscription for all accounts? That's way better than the guest system Microsoft uses. Seriously, why not let a silver account play with a gold account? If someone is signed in as a guest they're still playing the game online either way.
  • archnite - September 15, 2013 7:42 p.m.

    These comments have just as much info as the article! Much better than the days of flame war.
  • Fox_Mulder - September 14, 2013 1:56 p.m.

    Nice save lol.
  • Shinn - September 14, 2013 6:01 a.m.

    I play with rumble disabled because I'm more accurate without it.
  • GOD - September 13, 2013 9:50 p.m.

    It's kinda unfortunate that it's a racing game that's the only one to show them off so far, because the people who would care about that the most for feedback and added immersion in a racing game wouldn't be using a standard controller with triggers and thumb sticks.
  • eric-lambert - February 27, 2014 10:12 p.m.

    Good thing there currently aren't any steering wheel peripherals out for Xbox One then huh?
  • brickman409 - September 13, 2013 7:46 p.m.

    That sounds actually kind of cool. I don't think these type of features will be commonplace until about 10 years from now. The controller is ahead of its time. I mean that in a bad way, kind of like when people say that the virtual boy or the 3DO was ahead of its time.
  • GenderBender_9000 - September 13, 2013 4:33 p.m.

    It sounds like a good idea on paper. But when it comes to actually implementing these ideas into games,I don't see it working very well. Especially for shooters. I'm no gun expert, but I do go shooting every once in a while. And there defiantly is no vibration in the trigger when you shoot. Just a strong jerk
  • BladedFalcon - September 13, 2013 4:02 p.m.

    I agree that the vibration in the triggers is a neat idea, and if used well, it could add to the experience... But just like the kinect, I don't see many developers really bothering with the impulse triggers at all when developing a multi-platform game, which is frankly, what the majority of the Xbone's catalog going to consist of. Also, I am not sure if this could even be a problem because I haven't even tried them yet... But vibration on the triggers COULD potentially become an unwelcome distraction when precision is what you need the most, specially during a firefight. Of course, this would only be an issue if they went too crazy with the vibration, so I want to think they didn't XD
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - September 13, 2013 5:19 p.m.

    DEFINITELY. Really curious to see where this goes, if anywhere.
  • BladedFalcon - September 13, 2013 5:21 p.m.

    Indeed. Also Ryan, where's Radioradar at???
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - September 14, 2013 11:26 a.m.

    Holding off until Monday because it's full of GTA V stuff D:
  • BladedFalcon - September 14, 2013 1:20 p.m.

    ....right right! Okay, looking forward to that then! ...provided of course, that you guys won't be spoilerific with the game at all, right? :P
  • Eightboll812 - September 13, 2013 6:14 p.m.

    "I don't see many developers really bothering with the impulse triggers at all when developing a multi-platform game," Oh I can see them doing something with the feature. Not necessarily doing anything great with it, but just doing something to say they are doing something. I'll use current gen rumble as an example. I've seen so many poorly implemented uses that I find rumble beyond annoying. Take Heavy Rain for example (I think this was the game), where they just randomly have the controller rumble at dramatic scenes and stuff. Really just a distraction not an enhancement to the experience. I see lots of potential for games to just "use it" with impulse triggers without any real consideration to the question "Does this actually add to the game??" My first thought regarding this article and Forza 5 regarding the "realism" comment in the article from the author was to wonder to myself how triggers can make this feel real when I don't ever recall driving a real car with a batwing looking controller in my hands, and the steering wheel that I do recall using to drive a real car doesn't jerk back and forth in my hands, rather it stays fixed to the car. Since my car suspension and shocks are pretty good, most of the "rumbling" is absorbed long before it could hit the steering wheel. I dunno, maybe if I drove a 15 year old vehicle I might find rumbling hand controls and impulse triggers to fool my body into thinking it was realistic. I freely admit, without having tried the new controller, I could be very wrong here. I'm just not seeing how it will make me go, "wow, this is awesome!" I'm just amused by the apparent schizophrenia from MS, on one hand saying, here we've made the controller so realistic, you gotta have it, and on the other saying, you don't need a controller, cuz Kinect is where its at.

Showing 1-18 of 18 comments

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