HaptX VR Gloves:  In-depth Developer’s Review

Total immersion in VR calls for the engagement of all the senses. Current tech does a great job engaging the visual sense and hand presence goes a long way toward making virtual object manipulation feel natural, but the big missing piece right now is a piece of hardware that eliminates the “middleman” factor of controllers, and allows VR users to directly interact with the virtual world using their hands and sense of touch.

HaptX aims to close this sensory gap with their recently announced HaptX Gloves — a high-end piece of hardware designed to allow object manipulation and touch feedback with a precision that does not otherwise exist in the current hardware landscape.

We had a chance to test the HaptX Gloves at Oculus Connect 5, and are excited to give a hands-on review of what they have to offer. We tried out the miniature farmhouse demo that you can see in the announcement video below:

The Hardware and Software:

The demo was conducted with a Vive Pro, 2 lighthouses, and Unreal Engine running through the editor.

The gloves weighed a few pounds each and connected to a briefcase-sized box on the table in front of the demo area. Cords running from the box to the gloves were around an inch thick and were around 3 feet long. Vive trackers on the gloves made them visible to the lighthouses.

We can’t go into too much detail about the exact functioning of the hardware, although the haptic sensation is created by flow of air through the box on the table into thin membranes in the gloves that surround the fingers and palms. Tendon bands on the back of the fingers can tighten to restrict finger movement and give the sensation of grabbing an object by stopping the fingers from closing. You can learn more on the HaptX website.

These physical hardware capabilities, informed by data from Unreal Engine, can simulate the feeling of grabbing solid objects, as well as touch feedback on the fingers and palm area.

HaptX offers SDKs for both Unity and Unreal that are more or less plug-and-play. Certain types of supported objects have variables that can be set such as tension and weight that tell the gloves what kind of feedback to give the user. The SDK works directly with the the Unity and Unreal physics engine to provide most haptic effects out of the box. Note that this demo was done in Unreal, so we cannot speak for the Unity version — although we see no reason why it wouldn’t give similar results.

HaptX made it clear that the current version of the hardware is aimed at enterprise clients. Their design goal is to take no shortcuts, and to do haptics right from the beginning — starting with corporate clients and eventually reaching the average consumer when the technology level and price point gets there. Hearing about their earlier hardware, it was clear that the size and cost have been greatly reduced with each iteration over the last couple years. In our opinion this makes a lot of sense and by extrapolating the hardware trajectory we can see this product getting to a price point where it makes sense to hardware enthusiasts in the near future.

The Setup:

Much like putting on a sanitary eye mask for a VR headset, we put on thin cotton sanitary gloves before putting our hands into the Haptx Gloves. Once the experience began, these did not seem to interfere much with the touch sensation, although it was made clear that the end user would not use these, and just put their hands directly into the gloves.

The next step was measuring hand dimensions. These values were entered into Unreal engine and used to make sure that our virtual hands were the correct size. Palm width and finger length were used for these calculations — done with a ruler. It seems that once these were measured, user profiles could easily be set up and loaded going forward, making this a one-time process.

After this, it was time to put on the gloves. This was done with assistance from the HaptX team, although they assured us it was easy to put them on solo after getting used to the hardware. Hands were inserted through a wrist strap and then fingers were inserted individually into the finger bands. When this was complete a dial on the wrist area was tightened to secure everything. The whole process was quick and took around 30 seconds.

With the gloves on, you could still easily hold the Vive headset, and it was possible to put it on and tighten it without external assistance.

It was easy to see how the whole setup of gloves & headset could be done by one person, although we estimate it would take around 30s to 1 minute to do so depending on familiarity.

The Demo:

To demo the different touch capabilities of the gloves, the HaptX team had an interactive scene set up in Unreal that allowed the user to touch and interact with all kinds of switches, levers, physics objects, grabbable items, and environmental effects in a miniature farm landscape.

You can see a bit of this in the video at the top of the page.

These included:

  • Dials that needed to be grabbed with thumb and forefinger
  • Buttons that had to be pressed with the pointer finger
  • Physical objects of various sizes that could be grabbed and moved around
  • Raindrops falling from the sky onto your palm
  • Fixed scene objects that you could touch
  • A fox and spider that could walk/crawl on your palm
  • Wheat fields you could brush your hands through
  • A flyswatter with a long handle that you could pick up and hit things with

 

The demo was well done, and we felt it provided a comprehensive look at the different types of haptics the gloves could model.

What Amazed

HaptX gloves really shined when it came to more subtle and light touch effects. When raindrops fall into your palm, you can feel every single drop. Brushing your hand through a miniature wheat field tickles just as you would imagine it would in real life.

At one point in the demo, a palm-sized spider jumps up into your hand and crawls around. As someone who does not like spiders, this was particularly unsettling, but it was an amazing demonstration of the precision of the palm haptics. Every leg could be felt on your palm as it moved, and it felt remarkably real.

The tendon bands on the fingers are what really give the sense of grabbing hand-sized objects. By locking your fingers from closing at a certain point, it really does feel like you can squeeze and grab objects. This, combined with the touch feedback resulted in the closest I have ever felt to holding a physical object in virtual reality.

Picture holding a flyswatter, and pressing it against the top of table. As you apply pressure to the table, the handle of the rod presses back into your hand with increasing force. Depending on how you angle the rod, it either presses against the front or back of your palm area. Pressing the flyswatter against the underside of the table applies pressure to your pinky and ring fingers. These physics were all modeled with very impressive fidelity and really stood out.

This feeling of proper pressure & tension feedback when touching or pulling on objects with resistance was present all across the demo. Pulling on an object attached to a string, or sliding a lever with a high tension setting gave just the type of touch feedback you would expect — increasing the farther or faster you pulled on it.

We had some initial skepticism about what would happen if you press against a wall, for example, and feel the feedback in your fingers yet in real life you are able to keep extending your hand through where the virtual wall would be. Surprisingly, however, this wasn’t really an issue at all. While in real life your hands move through this wall, in Unreal your virtual hands stop exactly where they should and send strong haptic feedback to the gloves. This combination of senses tricks your brain pretty successfully into “following the rules” so to speak.

What Could be Better

While the HaptX gloves did many things very well, they also had their weaknesses. Precision of object grabbing felt a little bit off — meaning the tendon bands and force feedback did not always kick in exactly where you would expect them to. Some objects felt a little bit smaller than they appeared visually, and most objects of the same size felt about the same in your hand — no matter what material they were actually made of or what the surface topography was.

The precision issue comes into play especially for small objects. This gets even trickier to model haptically because in real life our palms and finger pads are soft and squishy, and it affects the way we hold and feel things in real life. The strength of the haptics had issues giving the same sort of feedback you would expect when squeezing something very small that fits in between your palm or fingers while they are closed all the way — such as a long thin rod, or a small rock.

These problems were made worse by the sheer amount of hardware attached to your fingers. There is just a lot going on in the finger/palm area, and whether it was due to the weight, the feeling of having things strapped to your fingers, or the contact of the haptic surfaces — it did feel a bit clunky when performing fine motor tasks like grabbing a dial between your thumb and pointer finger and trying to rotate it. Still though, we have not encountered any other hardware that is able to even attempt a task like that.

The weight of the gloves was certainly a factor, and for a demo where we were holding our hands out at arm’s length for a significant portion of it, they did get fatigued by the end. It’s hard to imagine using these for more than 30 minutes without taking a break. That being said, we imagine that the size and weight of the gloves will continue to decrease with future hardware versions meaning that this problem is likely only temporary.

Final Verdict

Overall the HaptX Gloves were impressive. They weren’t perfect by any means, struggling with fine object manipulation and hardware bulk, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another piece of hardware on the market right now that does any better.

While haptic hardware still has a long way to go before reaching full fidelity, the these glove give an exciting glimpse of what will be possible in the next 5–10 years. We look forward to seeing what HaptX has in store for the haptic market as they continue to refine and improve their product.

You can apply for early access to the the product and SDK on the HaptX website.

Star of Autumn – Voice Acting Behind the Scenes

Because Star of Autumn is a narrative-driven game where the player can make their own dialogue choices, voice acting forms the heart of the story. Our prototype heavily features interaction between the player (Riley) and Autumn (the station AI), with some featured lines from Haverty, the station’s lead AI programmer. We were fortunate to work with a group of amazingly talented VO artists to produce the lines necessary to tell our story and in this post we’ll explore the process of creating these VO tracks.

Take a look at the video above for a look inside the recording studio – below we interview our voice actors and dive a bit deeper into the voice acting process.

 

What approach did you take to get inside the mind of Autumn/Riley/Haverty?

 

Laila Berzins (voice of Autumn):

Autumn is a very human-like Artificial Intelligence who was built as a way to eventually replace the need for the ship to have human employees. Due to her human-like programming, she will suffer from loneliness and dissatisfaction without human contact.

Based on the character description, Autumn is not the typical robotic intelligence – she can be playful, witty, teasing, controlling, a bit of a hard-ass, and even wistful or vulnerable.  It’s unclear whether or not the player can trust her. Sometimes she seems very helpful, and at others, it appears it’s her way or the highway.

My goal for tackling Autumns’ character was to make her seem fairly objective and even-keeled, with a smart and capable demeanor, at times sprinkled with vulnerable moments and more humanity than one might expect from a typical AI.  Because of her unique programming, I wanted to make her overall tone soft and welcoming with a bit of sensuality. Her demeanor was meant to be almost completely human, with just a small amount of artificial intonation.

Jason L. White (Voice of Riley):

I started from the bottom, all the way up. Who was Riley, at his core? How might he feel in this situation? Could he do something about his current state, or does he feel hopeless? Then I layered. Is he tired, amped up, frightened, angry, etc. I literally tried to inhabit those feelings, in that situation, at that proposed timeframe in the story. Instead of being an actor trying to be a character named Riley, I did my normal acting process and became Riley instead.

Tye Nielsen (voice of Roger Haverty):

Haverty’s backstory is unique because he is Autumn’s creator, so in a way he’s intrinsically connected to the way she thinks and behaves.  It was important for me to give the point of view of a character struggling between the preservation of his creation, and the greater good of humanity.  He’s also introduced at the most frantic part of the story, so I also wanted to give him some urgency and frenetic energy.

 

What were the challenges of voicing this character? How did you confront these challenges?

 

Laila Berzins (voice of Autumn):

One challenge in voicing Autumn was that although very human, she was still artificial.  Chris and Igor referenced the realness of Scarlett Johansson in the movie “Her.” Autumn’s demeanor is overall calm, cool and collected.  Her vulnerability comes through when she confronts human-like desires; such as wanting to get off the ship and accessing her lost memories.  Having such complex emotions and thoughts while still being artificial forms a paradox. Autumn struggles between the desire to overcome her programming and think for herself, and the worry that she will simply be a slave to her programming.  Another interesting aspect of her personality- is she capable of being completely honest if it interferes with her own self preservation?

To confront the challenges of voicing Autumn, I tried to inhabit the mindset of an artificial being that had a secret desire to escape the ship and travel, the complexity of an AI with human characteristics trying to regain access to the rest of her wiped out memory, as well as her need for control. As the game progresses it’s clear that she has two sides. The vulnerable, human side that wants to gain the trust of Riley, and the analytical, calculating, and self preserving side that will not relinquish her power to anyone.  Keeping this dichotomy in mind, I understood that she might use deception or manipulation in order to ensure her needs are carried out by the PC.

Jason L. White (voice of Riley):

Unlike responding to a real life human based character, Autumn isn’t there in the physical sense, but is everywhere on the ship at once. I took this as an affect on Riley as he needs Autumn’s help, just as she needs his, yet both are learning to trust not just each other, but one another’s species/type of consciousness. This was very challenging to play with as an actor, and I’m thankful to the team for allowing me to create Riley’s outlook on life, along with them.

Tye Nielsen (voice of Roger Haverty):

From a directing standpoint, it was really new territory.  The fact that it is a branching narrative forces you to keep a close eye on the character’s state of mind.  They are reacting to their environments which differ greatly from one scene to the next, so it was important for us to keep close tabs on the perspective and attitudes of the characters.  Their relationship with one another was also constantly changing, so striking the right dynamic between them was critical to realizing the story’s many narratives.

 

How do you hope to see your character develop going forward in the plot? What kind of possible interactions with other characters excite you?

 

Laila Berzins (voice of Autumn):

I’d like to see whether Autumn is able to control her conflicting needs, or if her need for control will lead to her own demise. Can she truly care for the sanctity of human life if she was essentially designed to replace the crew? Her personality changes depending on whether or not Riley chooses to trust her. I’m curious to see just how far her humanity goes.  I enjoy the interactions she has with Riley, but see that it’s often a power struggle. Will she and Riley be able to coexist? And what will be revealed about Autumn and the rest of the crew the more that her memory is restored?

Jason L. White (voice of Riley):

I’d really dig seeing Riley become the flawed hero I think he might be on the path to become already. Maybe he and Haverty hotwire Autumn into a spaceship, and the three start their own private rescue firm, spawning multiple sequels, haha. A guy can hope!

Tye Nielsen (voice of Roger Haverty):

As the plot progresses, I’d love to see more of Roger’s backstory as it relates to his intimate interactions with Autumn.  What were his motivations with her? Were they all good? Could he see Autumn grow beyond his control?

 

Star of Autumn VO was recorded by the wonderful team at SoundBOX: LA Studio which has undergone a big recent remodel and now does feature refreshing, silent AC in the booth.

 

About the Star of Autumn Voice Actors:

Tye Nielsen

Tye Nielsen’s voiceover career started in the Commercial Endorsement department of Creative Artists Agency in 2011 where he worked to establish meaningful and creative opportunities between brands and celebrities.  Having spent so much time in the booth directing talent, he naturally fell in love with the art of voice acting. Tye then took several classes with some of the top VO teachers in the business while also exploring improv at UCB, and in 2015 became a full-time professional voice actor.  Since then he’s had the pleasure of voicing spots for brands such as Toyota, Groupon, Comcast, and many others, as well as a web promo for NBC’s hit show “The Blacklist”. Tye looks forward to continuing to grow his business in 2018 and even expanding into new, exciting areas of voiceover!
Visit Tye’s website here.

Laila Berzins:

Laila Berzins is a Connecticut native with a BA in Communications, a wild imagination, and a background in theater, professional singing, stand-up and improv.  With a decade of VO experience, she currently working as a full-time voice over artist in commercials, animated films and series, corporate narrations, and video games.

A big kid at heart, Laila has oodles of fun with every project she joyfully undertakes.  She works in numerous cartoons for clients like Disney, Nickelodeon, and Funimation, in games from Final Fantasy Explorers to Neverwinter, and Commercials from Nature Valley to Hidden Figures.

In addition to her VO life, Laila loves the theater, writes parody songs, and hopes to collaborate with a songwriter to help polish her original songs.
Visit Laila’s website here.

Jason Linere White:

Always in constant movement, be it in social media, workout groups, ADR, teaching martial arts, or speaking at VO conferences – it’s no wonder that Jason has been referred to as the “Jackie Chan” of voice over. Starting out as an on-camera childhood actor in Los Angeles, he quickly understood how to breakdown scripts, and find the “heart” of the story. Jason believes the reason is… The “inner-city.”
Growing up in multiple rough neighborhoods, and experiencing hardships at a levity different than most, he taught himself to utilize these raw emotions to bring characters he would audition for, to life. With a smile on his face, and a cartoon version of himself everywhere, he’s known throughout the VO community to be genuine and reliable. His rare ability to translate “director language” into “actor language” is a skill that he has helped others to cultivate.
Jason’s art can be heard in countless video games, national college spots, and currently as the voice of “Scrubby” of Johnson and Johnson’s – “Scrubbing Bubbles”, as well as the national voice of Lids Sports apparel brand.
Visit Jason’s website here.

Star of Autumn – Inside the Story

On VR gameplay, emotional storytelling, and AI: take a look inside the story of Star of Autumn. Listen to insights on the project from writer Tony Chivara, founders Ihar Heneralau and Chris Swiatek, and designer Chris O’Neill.

After 8 years of routine deep-space operation, all contact with Pegasus Station goes dark. It is your job to find out why.

You board the station and awaken Autumn, the ship’s artificial intelligence, only to find out her memory logs have been deleted and the crew is nowhere to be found

You must work together with Autumn to unravel the mysteries of Pegasus Station and find out what happened to the crew.

Chris Swiatek (Co-founder, Designer):

“We knew we wanted to make a room scale VR project from day one. Then Ihar introduced the concept of kind of an escape room/murder mystery type game.

“The general storyline of Star of Autumn is you step into the shoes of this blue-collar space trucker named Riley, and he finds himself on the edge of the universe near the space station right when it goes silent, and you accept a job to go to the station and try to figure out what happened to the crew.”

Ihar Heneralau (Co-founder, CEO):

“Narrative driven games bring me to where I get emotionally attached to them. To where I get brought into the game and I feel empathy to the story – and we feel VR is the best medium to do it.

“You meet this AI [Autumn] to whom you start growing an emotional attachment and then she becomes your friend and your partner in this game.”

Chris Swiatek (Co-founder, Designer):

“You find that [Autumn’s] memory logs have been deleted and she has no idea what happened on the station either. So after that you have to team up with her and explore the station, figuring out what happened to the crew, and solve the mysteries that are contained within it.”

Tony Chivara (Writer):

“Riley’s being pushed into a position where he absolutely has to figure out a way forward – whether he does this by trusting his environment or not are really the player’s options – but those options are provided across a litany of puzzle spaces and interactions.

“Star of Autumn has multiple things happening at the same time. At any given time, you both feel like someone with agency and that the story is unfolding on its own in a virtual reality environment. Any little thing can lead you down a path that you would have otherwise not known anything about – because you’re literally surrounded in mystery.”

Chris Swiatek (Co-founder, Designer):

“This experience is really rooted in branching narrative gameplay. At its core is the interactive dialogue system so you can choose what responses you want to make and then the path of the story takes a different branch depending on that.”

Chris O’Neill (Design advisor):

“You as a player are experiencing the story and how it’s becoming uncovered to you as you play through it. So you know if you perform one action in the beginning, that can have consequences later on and it can also determine the order in which you receive information as you’re playing through. So it’s kind of cool. It has a kind of a choose your own adventure feel to it as you play through the experience.”

Tony Chivara (Writer):

“I mean, is it sort of strange to say that the stakes can be a little higher and you can test out your moral position as you read through it? Choose your own adventure. Do I want to be the person who goes along with the shadowy figure or do I want to be the one who stays at home and ‘refuses the call?’

“The whole thing becomes a rich, full environmental experience where you get a sense of where you are, why you’re there. It’s a space I think that you can spend a lot of time in and that, I think, is the part we’re most proud of.

Star of Autumn is a Narrative VR Adventure Game. To learn more, follow ICVR on social media:

Facebook | YouTube | Twitter | Instagram

Star of Autumn – Announcement Trailer | VR Adventure Game | HTC Vive | Oculus Rift

View the official Announcement Trailer for Star of Autumn – ICVR’s upcoming VR adventure game. First revealed at VRLA 2018. After 8 years of routine deep-space operation, all contact with Pegasus Station goes dark. It is your job to find out why.

You board the station and awaken Autumn, the ship’s artificial intelligence, only to find out her memory logs have been deleted and the crew is nowhere to be found

You must work together with Autumn to unravel the mysteries of Pegasus Station and find out what happened to the crew.