Taclim boots: Why haptic foot feedback should be a low VR priority
Most of the VR developments at CES 2017 embodied sparks of innovation that hint at the next big advances. But Cerevo's Taclim haptic boots and gloves? Not so much. Between their spotty performance and weird demo, we quickly realized that the underlying technology is still rudimentary, and in the big picture, haptic foot feedback is low on our VR wishlist.
The Taclim system
The Taclim controller system consists of two so-called gloves, which would more accurately be called controllers. Your hands wrap around their plastic posts; you can click a trigger with your index finger or twiddle a joystick with your thumbs. Already established controllers like Oculus Touch or the HTC Vive's wands are worlds beyond them in terms of position tracking, haptic feedback, latency, looks – pretty much across the board.
That should have tipped us off to an underwhelming experience immediately, but the boots – the more novel part of the controller ecosystem – were the main draw, and the reason we sought out a demo. The Teraclim boots look like an amalgamation between the clunky plastic roller skates that little kids can put on over their shoes and Spice Girls-reminiscent platform sandals from the 1990s. We strapped them on over stockinged feet with a VR headset and Teraclim gloves, and embarked on a demo game punching and kicking robot foes.
It will surprise exactly no one to hear that the boots were far from ergonomic, though their adjustable straps did hold them on securely. Rubbery pillows at the soles of the feet gave an overly buoyant impression, which was underscored by the noisy and blocky platforms. It was impossible to forget you had them on.
Haptic feedback and performance
During game play, the boots emitted different types of haptic feedback depending on what virtual surface you were walking on – snow, puddles and wood were represented, as were swamps of the poison and electric variety. I could not feel much difference between the puddles or wood. The snow seemed more difficult to walk in, and the electric swamp sent out intense vibrations that evoked shopping mall-quality massage gadgets.
I could see how it would be nice to include floor feedback in the scope of total-game immersion, but the haptics on these rigs are just not there yet. Yes, it was nice to feel a difference, but the sensations we experienced were in no way realistic (admittedly, I have never been in an electric swamp). In addition, both the boots and gloves performed poorly as controllers. I wasn't able to punch or kick with much accuracy, and often robots fell out of the sky, defeated, when I hadn't even started to swing.
At this point, the goal doesn't justify the effort
In Cerevo's defense, the Teraclim gloves and boots have not been given an official release date or price yet, and it's very possible that their showcase at CES was meant to inspire excitement about possibilities rather than convince folks to empty their wallets. But even if they were truly impressive, they wouldn't be my first choice addition to the current VR ecosystem.
For one, haptic foot feedback is largely generated by walking, and room-scale VR is still quite limited. The HTC Vive is leading these efforts with its Chaperone system, but even then, the playing area is constrained. You'd still be restricted to walking around the size of a room and teleporting for wider movement. It would be a shame to squander terrific foot feedback on physically unnatural gameplay.
In demo play, wearers walked in place and leaned forward to punch and kick. But in a nod to the counterintuitiveness to that movement, Cerevo had a belt-and-rope tether system in place. If I wasn't wearing that belt tied to the wall, I would have marched away, fallen forward, or given an unsuspecting CES attendee a thwack of plastic they wouldn't soon forget.
Even with a large room-scale VR setup, humans by nature are not tremendously foot oriented. Unless they're in pain, how often are we actually thinking of our feet? Even when our feet are in sublime comfort – during a massage or trying on a luxurious pair of sneakers – we quickly forget about those sensations once the experience is over.
Right now, the VR industry to right to (mostly) concentrate on sense engagement, hand movement, and general positional tracking. Once those key technologies are in place, we can tackle bells and whistles like feeling the earth beneath our feet.