In the quest for more immersive entertainment experiences, researchers at Disney Research, Pittsburgh (DRP) have developed a new tactile technology called Surround Haptics. Instead of just relying on sound and vision - and in the case of video games, vibrating controllers - the system uses a low-resolution grid of vibrating actuators to generate high-resolution, continuous, moving tactile strokes across a person's skin. They claim the system is able to create smooth, continuous tactile motion, akin to the feeling of someone dragging a finger across someone's skin, rather than the discrete tactile pulsations or buzzes commonly used in today's haptic technology.

In a demonstration developed in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and others the technology is used to enhance a driving simulator game developed by Disney's Black Rock Studio. The developers of the Surround Haptics technology say players seated in a chair outfitted with inexpensive vibrating actuators will be able to feel road imperfections and objects falling on the car, sense skidding, braking and acceleration, and experience ripples of sensation when cars collide or jump and land.

Although the grid of actuators is low-resolution, the developers say they have designed an algorithm that allows them to control the array of vibrating actuators in such a way to create "virtual actuators" anywhere within the grid. These virtual actuators can be created between any two physical actuators so that the user has the illusion of feeling only the virtual actuator.

The DRP researchers say that although the phenomenon of phantom sensations created by actuators has been known for more than 50 years, its use in tactile displays has been limited because of an incomplete understanding of control mechanisms. By systematically measuring users' ability to feel physical actuators vs. virtual actuators under a variety of stimulation levels, the researchers were able to develop their control algorithm and then develop control models that were validated by further psychophysical experiments.

"Although we have only implemented Surround Haptics with a gaming chair to date, the technology can be easily embedded into clothing, gloves, sports equipment and mobile computing devices," said Ivan Poupyrev, senior research scientist at DRP, who invented and developed Surround Haptics with Ali Israr, also of DRP. "This technology has the capability of enhancing the perception of flying or falling, of shrinking or growing, of feeling bugs creeping on your skin. The possibilities are endless."

Aside from applications in interactive games, movies and music, the researchers say the Surround Haptics technology could also provide new tactile means of communication for the blind, emergency workers, vehicle operators, athletes and others. They claim the algorithms they created are also highly scalable and can be used anywhere on the skin, such as on the back, forearm, torso, palm, thigh and even the sole of the foot.

The Surround Haptics demonstration developed by DRP in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and others is being shown at the Emerging Technology Exhibition at SIGGRAPH 2011 from Aug. 7-11 in Vancouver.

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