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Haptic feedback in VR | Feel it in our hands

Haptic feedback in VR allows us to experience tactile sensations in virtual worlds and interact naturally with objects—but not all haptic feedback is equal. Vince Fung, Director of Product Marketing at Ultrahaptics, talks about how haptic feedback on our hands has a special place in deepening a sense of presence.

“You’re a sorcerer’s apprentice, casting fire, wind, and lightning spells with your bare hands. You spread your fingers, just as sorcerers do in movies, and actually feel magic powers running along your hands and shooting off your fingertips.”

– Ultrahaptics VR Spells experience

Presence is the magic of VR, and haptic feedback is the latest piece in the ever-growing presence puzzle.

It is widely acknowledged that adding the extra sensory dimension of touch to VR significantly deepens our sense of presence. Even small touches, such as feeling magic powers running through your hands, have a huge impact on users’ sense of presence.

Let’s take a close look at how feeling haptic feedback on our hands deepens what Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye calls “active presence.”

lightning spell ultrahaptics

Types of presence in VR

Kent Bye divides VR presence into four areas: Embodied Presence, Active Presence, Emotional Presence, and Social and Mental Presence.

Embodied presence is the sensation of being in another place. (“With the grate under my feet and the spire’s comforting solidity at my back,” Peter Rubin wrote in Future Presence about his StarVR experience, “I was more there than anywhere else, rational brain or no.”)

Embodied presence, however, isn’t enough. It’s “a starting point for VR but insufficient for true immersion,” Intel’s Kim Pallister said in his VentureBeat article. “Embodied presence creates the illusion of VR. Active presence sustains it.”

Ultrahaptics’ VR Spells experience is an example of active presence. Active presence is the degree to which we can physically engage and act in VR: our sense of agency, the ease of exploration and interaction, and the way in which the environment responds to us.

VR deer

(Emotional, social and mental presence are higher-order experiences created by combinations of embodied and active presence, together with storytelling, aesthetics, and experience design. This includes the way we relate to others within VR. We won’t go into these in detail here. For more about how haptic feedback influences them see this haptic storytelling blog.)

Why our hands play a key role in active presence and VR

The first time I experienced Zero Latency’s Engineerium, I instinctively reached out to try and touch the virtual objects around me.

This is, of course, an incredibly common (in fact almost universal) reaction in VR. But we don’t reach out with just any part of our body. We reach out with our hands.

We do this because our hands are our brain’s go-to tools. Since the dawn of time, we’ve used them as our primary devices to explore and to interact with the world around us. Whether that world is real or virtual, our instincts remain the same.

woman VR gasp

How haptic feedback deepens active presence in VR

The more naturally we can use our hands in VR, the deeper our sense of active presence becomes.

Part of this is about interfacing with our hands. From the use of hand-held controllers to gesture-based systems, making wider and more natural ranges of actions and motions possible in VR increases our sense of active presence.

The other part is haptic feedback.

Touch and action are symbiotically linked in our hands, which contain specialized types of receptors only found in a few other places on the body. These allow us to feel extremely subtle distinctions in shape, texture, vibration, and pressure.

Hand touching grass

We use this information to fine-tune our actions moment by moment. (To understand this, think of how hard it is in the real world to do a task as simple as fastening a button when wearing a pair of gloves.)

It’s impossible to use our hands naturally without haptic feedback. It’s like driving a vehicle with a free-spinning steering wheel.

Without haptic feedback, we’ll never be able to interact naturally in VR.

Haptic technology, active presence and VR

Building haptic feedback directed at our hands into VR heightens the sense of active presence—whether that’s through contactless or contact technologies.

couple VR headset

At Ultrahaptics, we create the sensation of touch in mid-air using contactless ultrasonic technology. We believe there’s something particularly naturalistic about touching a virtual world with our bare hands, just as we touch the real one.

Putting on a VR headset and seeing a ghostly figure is one thing. Reaching out and feeling a spooky sensation as we touch it is another. And when, as we touch it, the ghostly figure turns and screams … at that point, the boundary between real and imaginary dissolves.

Active presence is the next level of VR. If you’re interested in staying up to date with the latest developments in the haptic technology that’s going to make that next level possible, sign up to our newsletter.

Vince Fung is Director, Product Marketing at Ultrahaptics, the world’s leading mid-air haptics company, where he oversees marketing for North America and is also responsible for the location-based entertainment sector. He can be contacted here.

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