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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.