Experiencing something in virtual or augmented reality can be pretty life-like. But adding haptic touch technology to the mix — letting you feel the size, weight, temperature, and impact of virtual objects — takes it up another notch.
HaptX is making it happen. The Seattle startup, previously known as AxonVR, today unveiled its first product, the HaptX Gloves, which use microfluidic technology and motion tracking to let users to move through virtual environments and feel virtual objects with their hands.
I had a chance to test the new product at HaptX’s office in Seattle and it certainly feels like something out of a movie — in fact, there’s a part in science fiction novel Ready Player One (and soon to be major motion picture) that features haptic gloves.
I demoed an earlier prototype of the technology almost one year ago, but that version only showed how the haptic touch worked in a virtual environment and didn’t incorporate the actual glove.
HaptX, backed by a $5.8 million round from investors like former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, has made considerable progress since then as its initial 20 customers wait for shipments to begin next year.
The glove is still in prototype stage — it felt pretty bulky after I strapped it on for the demo. I put on an HTC Vive headset tethered to a large box-like machine that controls airflow to the glove (which also had a Vive tracker attached to it), and soon I was transported to a virtual farm where I could whisk my fingers through a wheat field and feel the grain brush on my skin. The stars felt differently than the clouds; individual raindrops splashed on my hand; and the cute fox prancing across my palm was much more comfortable than the creepy spider that came soon later.
It was definitely a leg up over experiencing VR without touch, or even with controllers. This video shows what the technology enables with the gloves, which have more than 100 points of high-displacement tactile feedback created by small inflated air bubbles that displace your skin depending on where you are moving in the virtual environment.
The HaptX technology is innovative, but can the company create a business around these gloves, and ultimately haptic technology for the entire body?
HaptX CEO Jake Rubin, who helped start the company in 2012 as a 22 year-old with co-founder Bob Crockett, is optimistic about how the gloves will help provide value to the end user.
“Our real problem right now, frankly, is not demand — it’s supply,” Rubin told GeekWire.
The CEO, a Mercer Island, Wash., who attended the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, wouldn’t reveal HaptX’s initial customers but said they are Fortune 500 companies and “leaders in their fields.”
HaptX is focusing on three potential use case categories: entertainment, design and manufacturing, and training.
Rubin said that customers in the defense industry traditionally rely on special purpose simulators for training applications that are “incredibly expensive, inflexible, and non-portable.”
“There is an incredible level of excitement in the military community around the prospect of having a general purpose platform that consists of haptic wearables, plus a head-mounted display, that allows you to train any situation at any time in any place at a fraction of the cost of these special purpose simulators,” he explained.
Rubin said adding haptic touch technology to virtual training is a game-changer that helps speed up the learning process and gives a better sense of what an experience is actually like in real life.
“They need to have those motor skills components — that’s something that is true of basically everyone we talk to in the enterprise space,” Rubin added. “It doesn’t matter whether you are doing surgery, maintaining an aircraft, or designing a car — that touch component is absolutely crucial and they just can’t get by without it.”
Rubin said the company’s focus is now shifting from heavy R&D to scale and production of the gloves. The idea is to ultimately design products for the entire body.
“The big push for us right now is moving from fully featured prototype to a product,” he noted.
Investors in HaptX include China-based NetEase; Dawn Patrol Ventures; The Virtual Reality Company, Keeler Investment Group; ex-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo; Digital Kitchen founder Paul Matthaeus; and Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering Jon Snoddy.
“We’ve reviewed the wearable haptic solutions out there, and the HaptX prototype provides the most realistic feedback by far,” Dr. Jeremy Fishel, chief technology officer of a tactile evaluation company called SynTouch, said in a statement. “HaptX marks a fundamental breakthrough in our industry’s ability to simulate touch.”
The company, which has raised more than $9 million to date and is a “Seattle 10” startup for 2017, employs 32 people spread across offices in Seattle and San Luis Obispo, Calif. It is one of many new up-and-coming virtual reality startups in the Seattle area. Others include Pluto VR, Pixvana, VRStudios, VREAL, Endeavor One, Nullspace VR, Against Gravity, Visual Vocal, and several others. Those are in addition to larger companies like Microsoft, Valve, HTC, and Oculus that also are developing virtual and augmented reality technologies in the region.
Here’s Rubin and Crockett talking about the technology behind HaptX: