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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, Product Marketing at Ultrahaptics, explains how haptic feedback on our hands has a special place in interactivity, agency and deepening a sense of presence.

“The feedback loop from vision to motor control to haptic sensation is one of the most powerful ways to create deeply convincing experiences … It’s obvious that what we really want in the long run is for the hands to be able to act as the dextrous virtual manipulators that they are in the real world.”

Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist, Oculus

What do people do the first time they try VR? Almost always, they instinctively reach out to try and touch the virtual objects around them.

And 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.

lightning spell ultrahapticsIn Ultrahaptics’ Spells experience, you cast fire, lightning and wind spells with your bare hands, feeling magic powers running along your hands and shooting off your fingertips.

Types of presence in VR

Voices of VR podcaster, 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.”

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

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.

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.

A study conducted by Ultrahaptics, Fallen Planet Studios and the Immotion VR network of VR arcades showed that it was possible to quantify the difference adding haptics made to a VR horror experience.

Guests who used AFFECTED: The Visit with haptics had a 25% stronger sense of body ownership and 27% greater sense of agency. They were also significantly more likely to replay or recommend the experience.

Haptic feedback is central to the interactivity that’s going to create the next level of VR.

Ultrahaptics LBE whitepaper layout

To find out more about Ultrahaptics’ technology and how it can enhance VR experiences in arcades, location-based VR and theme parks, download our whitepaper. This includes:

  • Mid-air haptic effects you can create
  • Single user/pod-based/multi-user/free roaming scenarios
  • Operational benefits
  • Development kits, haptic modules and tools

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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