Have you ever experienced sound as an actual tactile sensation? Or truly felt the difference between firing an M14A4 and a SCAR-L in Battlefield 4? That’s the promise of ViviTouch technology: translating sounds and sensations into a versatile language of tactile feedback that goes way beyond the standard vibration and rumble features we’re accustomed to.
One year ago I met with the team at ViviTouch — a subsidiary of Bayer MaterialScience — and demoed a prototype pair of the team’s “4D Sound” headphones. Tiny actuators inside these headphones consist of thin polymer film which expands and moves in a planar motion. If that sentence lost you, know this: It was an emotional, religious experience that replicated the feeling of being at a live concert, feeling the deep punch of the bass guitar or that nuanced tickle of heavenly harmonies. And they did that without having to raise the volume to ear-bursting levels since the technology puts no air pressure on the ear drums.
This year finds the ViviTouch team on the verge of bringing 4D Sound headphones to market via the FREQ 4D from MadCatz (available now) as well as an Able Planet model and a third unannounced partner later this year. But the team has been busy building prototypes to demonstrate the technology’s practical range of use in other devices like fitness bracelets, Xbox 360 controllers, and yep, even sex toys.
Where haptics are concerned, humans can differentiate between at least 85 levels of sensitivity without needing to “learn” it like a language. Translate that into something like a vibrator, and it’s no surprise to hear that ViviTouch is getting a mountain of requests from the adult toy industry. That “HD feel” would be an integral part of said products.
These ViviTouch haptics could add an important layer of interactivity to devices like wearable fitness bracelets and smart watches. Imagine the Nike FuelBand using haptics to put you in tune with your heartbeat by amplifying and mimicking it on your wrist during a workout. Or various layers of vibration or pulses to indicate your progress toward a goal, or a mile marker, or any number of other variables. (I personally hate hearing coaching voices interrupting my music, and would welcome more subtle cues like this.)
During my session I also saw a stylus equipped with miniature ViviTouch modules. While that concept may irritate an animator or 3D artist, it could have useful applications in other spaces including gaming and the medical field.
With the exception of battery life, the “thin and light” battles between mobile devices are beginning to taper off. And with a ceaseless march toward mobile gaming, a ViviTouch enabled screen on your tablet or smartphone (yep, they’ve prototyped this as well) could be an important new direction for that industry. This could be their new battleground.
Beyond the obvious enhancements, haptics in mobile gaming could also take the form of cues. “Colder/Warmer” indications in hidden object games, or as a way to monitor health in an RPG or shooter. The goal is simply to add another channel to the existing senses, creative new depths of immersion.
ViviTouch representatives acknowledge that programming haptics into new and existing games and apps could be a challenge. To that end, they’ve created an SDK containing a pretty extensible haptics editing tool. Think of it as an audio editor, but for haptics. Various palettes can be pulled up with things like impact libraries, weapons, and engines. Programmers can sync these effects with video footage, and the resulting exported file just needs to be addressed by an event in the existing game code.
This is a complicated way of saying that developers can ostensibly hook ViviTouch’s SDK into their existing code without much fuss, though this does introduce new levels of responsibilities for sound designers.
It would be awesome for a company like Valve or a AAA game studio to pick this up and push it into a standard. I immediately recognized how dramatically ViviTouch — whether through headphones or controller or both — could augment an experience like the title="Ready For Virtual Reality Withdrawals? The New Oculus Rift Crystal Cove Prototype Is That Good">Oculus Rift. I do know that Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey has torn down some of this ViviTouch tech and expressed interest, but there aren’t any announced plans for an official partnership.
All told, I’m convinced that ViviTouch is the way forward for a variety of entertainment and professional mediums. I’ve met with the ViviTouch team twice now, and there’s no denying their passion or the blessing they have from Bayer MaterialScience. Here’s to hoping their release into the headphone space proliferates into much more this year.