A prototype control pad created by engineers at the University of Utah promises a generational leap in tactile feedback for video games over the rudimentary rumble-packs in use today. Using small, independently moving "tactors", perhaps best thought of as a thumb-stick within a thumb-stick, the engineers have simulated sensations such as collisions, crawling, and being buffeted by ocean waves.

Similar to the small pointing sticks (or nubs) that were relatively common mouse alternatives in laptops until fairly recently, the small red tactors stretch the skin of the thumb in different directions to induce sensation. In one fishing game demo demonstrated by the team, the tactor is used to indicate the tension in the fishing line. "As the fish jerks on the line, you can feel the tactor jerk under your thumb," said associate professor of mechanical engineering William Provancher.

In addition to developing the hardware the team has developed a library of "feedback modes" that might be used by games designers to deploy tactile feedback to common tasks. One such mode sees both the left and right tactors move up and down out of step, so that when the left tactor is up, the right is down. The mode might be used to mimic a prone soldier crawling on their belly, moving one arm after the other.

A crucial aspect of the development of the prototype was a study looking at how the thumb position of gamers affected the quality of the feedback. The tactors move up, down, right and left in the same direction as you would push a traditional game thumb-stick to move north, south, east and west. But gamers tend to place their thumbs on a thumb-stick at an angle of nearly 45 degrees for the most comfortable gaming grip. According to the findings presented by the researchers, gamers' brains "made the necessary mental rotations" such that performance was not affected.

"I'm hoping we can get this into production when the next game consoles come out in a couple of years," Provancher added. But in addition to the XBox 720 and PlayStation 4, Provancher has one eye on another lucrative market for the patent-pending device. The team also hopes the technology could be applied to a smartphone gaming peripheral, similar to the iCade Mobile but with tactor-thumb-sticks either side of the phone.

Previous research included a tactile steering wheel applying almost exactly the same idea, and Provancher hopes the research will have broader utility beyond the gaming sphere. "By placing skin-stretch feedback in a game controller, it creates a nice testing environment for understanding human perception and cognition," he said.

The researchers are presenting their prototype at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Haptics Symposium in Vancouver between March 5 and March 7. Here's a demo of the prototype in use.

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