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VR storytelling | Haptic horror

Imagine the touch of an ice-cold hand, the unexpected brush of something across the back of your neck, the sensation of touching a strange, sticky slime… Jenny Grinsted, Content Writer at Ultrahaptics, explains how haptics takes spooky experiences onto another level.

Who doesn’t love a ghost story? And as humans, we’ve been telling them for a very long time – ever since round some campfire a Stone Age storyteller told their tribe about a monster lurking in the woods.

Spooky trees in the woods

Ever since then, storytelling has been evolving. From oral to written narrative; from theatre to film; from film to VR.

In both new and traditional forms of storytelling, horror is an enduring and profitable genre. Of the 1.2bn movie tickets sold globally in 2017, around 116m, or 9.5%, were horror movies. Since its 2017 release, cult horror film It has grossed around $700m worldwide, with a production budget of only $35m.

Storytelling may have evolved. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that, since the dawn of time, storytellers have instinctively known the sensation of touch is one of the pillars of a truly spooky experience.

Here’s Bram Stoker, back in 1897, describing the moment Jonathan Harker shakes Count Dracula’s hand:

The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man.

Let’s coin a phrase here: haptic horror. It’s the way the sensation of touch, whether imagined or directly experienced, takes an experience onto another level.

It’s the moment poor old Jonathan Harker first gets an intimation Dracula is one of the undead. It’s the touch of an ice-cold hand, the unexpected brush of something across the back of your neck, the sensation of touching a strange, sticky slime.

Ghost spooky hands

In horror, the sensation of touch is one of the ways in which imaginary monsters – the ghosts, the zombies, the vampires – suddenly become terrifyingly, decisively real. It’s also often the moment things start to get seriously scary.

In 2018, VR studio Fallen Planet developed a haptic horror experience called AFFECTED: The Visit, featuring Ultrahaptics’ mid-air haptic feedback technology.

You can see some of the visceral audience reactions in the video above. Even more compelling, though, were the results of a follow-up study we did in partnership with the Immotion VR network of VR arcades.

We tested the experience with and without the haptics activated. Visitors who used the experience with haptics had a stronger sense of body ownership and agency (both of which indicate deeper immersion). They were also significantly more likely to replay or recommend the experience.

ultrahaptics study infographic

People talk about VR being a portal between the imaginary and the real. What the timeless techniques of horror show us, though, is that haptics is another.

And when you start putting them together and adding haptic feedback into spine-chilling VR experiences… well, let’s just say that we’ve found things can start getting very spooky indeed.

Jenny Grinsted is a storyteller and content developer who spends half her time in the world of haptics and the other half in the world of children’s books.


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