New 'Surround Touch' Technology Makes 'Feelies' a Reality

An advance in tactile technology lets driving simulation game users feel a range of sensation — from the impact of a collision to impression of a finger on skin. Other possibilities for the “surround haptic” technology include enhancing movie viewing and even embedding it in clothing.


surround haptics game play
'Surround haptics' game chair: note array of actuators in the back of the chair. The red squiggle depicts a pattern of stimulation possible with the system.

Move over ‘Surround Sound’, here comes ‘Surround Haptics’: a technological advance that permits users of video games or viewers of films to experience physical sensations, such as the jolt from a car crash or even the touch of a hand.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World vision of a future in which mass movie goers attend the orgasm-inducing “feelies” has taken a giant leap into present day reality…or perhaps even Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “holodeck”…

Introduced this week by Disney Research, Pittsburgh (DRP), at the International Emerging Technology Exhibition at this year’s SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, B.C., the technology is currently in the form of a ‘gaming chair’ outfitted with a grid of vibrating actuators (tiny devices that trigger another action). But, according to its designers, the haptic array of actuators can be outfitted into many other objects, including clothing.

Similar to the stereoscopic effect, the surround haptic effect occurs when a “virtual” sensation is sensed between to physical ones; the brain ignores the two physical ones (the physical actuators), and convinces itself that the central (virtual) one is the only real one. Users or viewers don’t feel the continuous buzz of the devices (as they require a continuous, though low, power source), but rather, discreet or continuous sensations–from violent bumps to velvety touches.

“This technology has the capability of enhancing the perception of flying or falling, of shrinking or growing, of feeling bugs creeping on your skin. The possibilities are endless.” said Ivan Poupyrev, senior research scientist at DRP, co-inventor/developer of  Surround Haptics with Ali Israr, also of DRP.

While the basic haptic/touch technology has been available for quite awhile, the obstacle to realizing this degree of sensation has been the complexity of controlling a large array of actuators.  Engineers were able to develop an algorithm that can control these vibrating arrays by first testing user’s ability to sense virtual vs. physical sensations. The results of these tests were used to develop a control model and, after further testing, the desired control algorithm.

The final effect created by the actuators is compared to the phenomenon of “phantom sensations”  (as in phantom limb syndrome). This effect has been known about for many decades, but until now, the means of scaling it, applying it, and controlling it did not exist.

Currently, the technology is intended for enhancing a “high intensity” driving-simulator game developed in collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and Disney’s Balck Rock Studio. Seated players outfitted with one of these arrays are then able to have an immersive driving experience — feeling every imperfection in the road, the skidding of tires, braking and accelerating, etc. When a player’s car collides with another car or land object,  s/he feels the impact rippling through the body.

Some source material for this post came from the press release: Tactile technology guaranteed to send shivers down your spine

From the release: The SIGGRAPH demonstration of Surround Haptics was developed in collaboration with Kenny Mitchell and Huw Bowles of Disney’s Black Rock Studio; Neil Hutchinson of Roundcube Entertainment Ltd; Christopher Ioffreda, an undergraduate in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design who is a Disney lab associate; Mark Baskinger, CMU associate professor of design; Seung-Chan Kim a Ph.D. student in the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology who is interning at the Disney lab; and Jan Stec, a recent graduate of CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center who interned at the Disney lab.

 photo: courtesy of Byron Spice, Computer Science dept., Carnegie Mellon University

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