Coming Soon: When Touch Games Touch Back

By: Noah J. Nelson

I didn't expect the coolest thing I'd see on the first day of E3 to be a pair of headphones.

Scratch that.

I didn't expect the coolest thing I'd see on the first day of E3 to be a new kind of engine that was powering those headphones. All from a company you and I are more likely to associate with aspirin than with next generation gaming peripherals. The technology is being marketed under the brand name ViviTouch, by Artificial Muscle, Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer MaterialScience LLC. The headphones are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this technology can do-- with applications not only in gaming but in medical technology as well.

Let's start with the headphones, however, since that is the first consumer product that is going to reach the market.

To get the body rocking club effect of a deep bass notes on most headphones you have to crank the volume way up. Which is murder on the eardrums. Not that this medical fact stops your hardcore gamer or hip-hop fan from going through with it. That bass thump is part of the allure. What the ViviTouch tech-- which they call ElectroActive Polymer technology-- allows for is that thump-thump-thump of the bass without fragging your ears. The thin polymer built into the headphones can simulate the physical effects of the bass by shaking the phones in time to the music.

Not just kinda-in-time but in TIME. Artificial Muscle CEO Dirk Schapeler handed me over a pair of heavy duty headphones that had been modded with the technology. The effect is deceptively subtle. A small button on the side of the demo unit allowed me the turn the effect off and on at will. With the physical feedback on the first word that came to mind was "cinematic". Here was a sound tech that was triggering all the physical responses that I get in side a movie theater with a good sound system, albeit localized around my ears.

It's a subtle thing, but powerful none the less. Hours of regular headphone use later and I'm missing the effect. Schapeler, without naming names, told me that there are four companies that will be building the tech into their headphones, with the end of the year as the target for product reaching market. This, however, is just the beginning for the ViviTouch technology and Schapeler (hear our audio interview up above) has set up shop on the E3 show floor to attract partners willing to bring the technology into other parts of the gaming world.

This is where it gets really interesting.

Let's step back for a second and talk about the core of the technology. The ElectroActive Polymer is a thin material that reacts to electrical current. It can expand or contract based on the presence of a charge. The polymer has a response time of 5 milliseconds. I was shown a small demo box consisting of a switch and circle of the polymer. I pushed the button and the diameter of the polymer began pulsing. A small engine consisting entirely of one part. This is how UFO abductees must feel when being shown alien technology.

Remember the sequence in Batman Begins where Lucius Fox shows Bruce Wayne the material that makes up Batman's cape? He runs an electrical charge through it and it changes shape. This is-- if not exactly that-- than the first step down that road.

Schapeler then brought me to a station where an XBox controller's battery pack and feedback units had been stripped out an replaced with the technology. The ViviTouch feedback was more fine-grained than what I was used to. The station was running a version of Half-Life 2 that had a new layer of haptic feedback added to the design. This demo pointed to what could likely be a whole new avenue of game design in the coming years: the subtle art of physical feedback.

The Half-Life demo didn't quite feel right, perhaps it was what my muscle memory was expecting coming up against the new information being transmitted through my hands. More likely it is the simple fact that we are so early in the development of gaming haptics that the art side of the equation isn't quite there yet. There is a whole new canyon in Uncanny Valley that will need to be bridged in the coming years.

Then they showed me the real killer: an original iPad that had been retrofitted with the technology. A dice ruling application was on screen. It felt like there were dice inside the iPad. We called up a labyrinth game. I could "feel" the ball running through the maze. The illusion was complete. We switched to a pinball simulator. I love pinball. I hate pinball video games. This didn't feel like a pinball video game. It felt like I was cradling a pinball machine in my hands.

All of this remains the beginning. Schapeler sat patiently as I ranted and raved about the possibilities inherent in what his company has. I imagined what one could do with gloves that incorporating this technology synched up to an interface like the Microsoft Kinect. The missing puzzle piece, if you will, that completes the Minority Report picture: tactile immersion.

We have the technology. We can build it.

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