Disney says game technology will enhance tactile feedback

Disney Research is developing technology that it claims will greatly enhance tactile feedback in video games and home cinema, allowing users to experience discrete, continuous motions such as a finger being drawn against skin.

The technology, called Surround Haptics, is based on rigorous psychophysical experiments and new models of tactile perception developed in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions.

The researchers have accomplished this by designing an algorithm for controlling an array of vibrating actuators so as to create ‘virtual actuators’ anywhere within the grid of actuators. As Ivan Poupyrev, a senior scientist at Disney Research, explained, a virtual actuator can be created between any two physical actuators, where the user has the illusion of feeling only the virtual actuator.

As a result, users don’t feel the general buzzing or pulsing typical of most haptic devices today, but can feel discrete, continuous motions such as a finger tracing a pattern on skin.  

The phenomenon of phantom sensations created by actuators has been known for more than 50 years, but its use in tactile displays has been limited because of an incomplete understanding of control mechanisms. The researchers were able to develop their control algorithm by systematically measuring users’ ability to feel physical actuators versus virtual actuators under a variety of stimulation levels. They then developed control models that were validated by further psycho-physical experiments.

Disney will demonstrate Surround Haptics on August 7–11 at the Emerging Technology Exhibition at SIGGRAPH 2011.

‘Although we have only implemented Surround Haptics with a gaming chair to date, the technology can be easily embedded into clothing, gloves, sports equipment and mobile computing devices,’ said Poupyrev.

Research colleague Ali Israr added: ‘This technology has the capability of enhancing the perception of flying or falling, of shrinking or growing, of feeling bugs creeping on your skin. The possibilities are endless.’