Image 1 - A Game Controller That Controls You
March 5, 2012

A Game Controller That Controls You

[ Video 1 ] | [ Video 2 ]

Engineers at the University of Utah have created a video game controller designed to tug and stretch a players thumb tips. Such a sensation could be used to simulate ocean waves, gun fire, or even the tug of a fishing line.

The creators of this new controller hope that it will be the next in a long line of controllers and peripherals designed to enhance immersion in video games.

According to a recent press release, William Provancher, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said: “I'm hoping we can get this into production when the next game consoles come out in a couple of years.”

Provancher is currently demonstrating the new controller with his students in Vancouver, British Columbia at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Haptics Symposium. Haptics are to touch what optics are to vision and have been applied to all sorts of devices, such as cell phones and touch screen devices.

In 1997, Nintendo introduced the first haptic feedback game controller with the Nintendo 64 “Rumble Pack”. The Rumble Pack housed an offset motor that rotated at different speeds to simulate effects of game play, such as flying a jet or racing a car. The Rumble Pack snapped on to the bottom of the Nintendo 64 controller.

Provancher´s controller takes this idea even further: it can push and tug at a players fingertips to give the player directional cues and direct haptic feedback.

The latest prototype of the game controller resembles controllers from Microsoft´s XBOX or Sony´s Playstation systems. Outfitted with 2 thumb joysticks, the new controller looks very familiar with the exception of 2 little red dots, or “tactors”. These tactors are located in the center of the 2 joysticks and resemble the head of an eraser. The factors are what are responsible for the haptic feedback the game sends to the player.

Some examples of this kind of feedback can be found when a player´s avatar runs into a wall. The player will feel the tactors move back against the player's thumbs to mimic the impact. If the player chooses a fishing game, Provancher says, "as the fish jerks on the line, you can feel the tactor jerk under your thumb.”

Many modern video games are designed so that the left joystick is used for direction while the right joystick is used for aim or gaze. The new controller can be configured in this way, however the tactors will provide feedback to mimic walking or even crawling. For example, as the player´s avatar crawls on the ground, the tactors will tug back and forth under both thumbs, simulating crawling with one arm and then the other.

Provancher has his eyes set on more than just video games. Cell phones and smart phones have also used haptic feedback to direct and communicate with the user. Provancher hopes to adapt the new game controller to be used with smart phones as a peripheral device.

Early research also studied the implementation of this technology on steering wheels. Using the same tug and pull sensation, the tactors attached to the steering wheel would direct the driver to turn left or right. This was used as a navigation system, and did so with just as much accuracy, according to the press release. For now, Provancher keeps his focus on controllers, saying, “by placing skin-stretch feedback in a game controller, it creates a nice testing environment for understanding human perception and cognition.”

Future research will focus syncing the haptic feedback with sights, sounds, and vibrations.


Image 1: The University of Utah's latest prototype of a new kind of video game controller features typical thumb joysticks (white) but also has a round, red "tactor" in the center of each joystick to tug gently at the thumb tips. That kind of touch feedback is more advanced than existing games that vibrate the hands, and can simulate the tug of a fishing line, the feeling of ocean waves or the recoil of a gun. Photo Credit: Markus Montandon, University of Utah

Image 2: Earlier prototypes of a new kind of game controller by University of Utah mechanical engineer William Provancher had handles so researchers could study the effect of placing thumbs straight on the controller's joysticks or at an angle, as is the case with existing Xbox and PlayStation controllers. Their study found gamers were just as accurate either way in interpreting the direction of tugs on the thumb tips by the new controller's touch-feedback feature. Photo Credit: Markus Montandon, University of Utah

Image 3: Ashley Guinan, a computer science doctoral student at the University of Utah, holds a new kind of game controller in her right hand as it tugs her right thumb in different directions. Then she tries to move a standard PlayStation joystick the same direction with her left hand. It was a test of how well gamers can interpret directional cues through their thumb tip. Photo Credit: Markus Montandon, University of Utah


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