Thumbstretching next-gen gaming
| 10 March 2012
Game controllers are about to get a whole lot more intense. Forget thumb blisters – the latest pad is a thumb stretcher! Engineers and students at the University of Utah have designed a new kind of video game controller. It not only vibrates like existing joy pads, but pulls and stretches the thumb tips in different directions, to simulate the recoil of a gun or the tug of a rope.
The team has just demonstrated the new controller at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Haptic Symposium in Vancouver, Canada. Haptic means ‘touch’; in videogames, the first touch controller was the 1997 Rumble Pack used by the Nintendo 64 console. For the last 15 years all touch-enabled pads have worked on the ‘vibration method’; vibrating in a players’ hands to represent action in-game, such as driving on a gravel path, taking a punch or clashing light sabers.
This new controller promises to bring realism to a frightening new level by stretching the thumb skin in different directions. It may sound a bit painful, but it promises not to be.
In the new controller, the middle of each ring-shaped thumb stick has a round, red ‘tactor’ that looks like the small control stick found on lots of new laptops. While playing, the dot moves, providing touch feedback, which allows games developers to enhance sensations such as gunfire.
The engineers suggest that the feeling is very similar to what you get if you place your finger down on a tabletop and drag it across - it stretches the skin. The skin tugging is happening because of the mechanism beneath the thumbsticks, responding to your movements. So if an in-game character runs into a door, the tactor under the thumb moves back to mimic impact. Similarly, if you jerk a virtual rope while climbing down a cliff edge, you can feel the tactor jerk under your thumb.
So far, the development team has built five different ‘touch’ sensations: bounce, pulse, a circular movement, a wave effect and the feeling of crawling along the ground. They also believe the new control system could be used to give in-game directional clues, drawing the players’ attention to action on the left of the screen, for example.
So, when can you get your hands – or thumbs, on this revolutionary new control system? Think years, not months. The system is still being developed, but the team are pitching the technology to none other than Microsoft – and we all know what console those guys make…