New game controller design gets thumbs up… and down

A new video game controller design aims to go a step beyond vibration by actively stretching the skin on players’ thumbs. It’s intended to simulate actions such as a gun recoiling.

The design includes traditional thumbsticks, but with a separate circle in the middle known as a tactor. It’s similar to an eraser at the end of a pencil, or the small control device found on some laptops. The tactor moves independently of any vibration feature and provides just enough force to move the skin without moving the entire thumb.

The technique is the work of William Provancher, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah. He says the aim is to “enhance immersiveness and realism for gaming scenarios.”

The effects would be as much psychological as physical. For example, Provancher suggests that in a military game where the player character is crawling, the tactors could move back and forth alternately on the two sticks, giving more of a feel of the arms pulling along the ground. Similarly a side to side motion can give the feeling of a boat rocking on waves.

In a demonstration at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ Haptics Symposium in Vancouver, Provancher and his team showed a fishing game in which the bite of a fish is simulated by a jerk of the tactor.

Although Provancher is pitching the idea to console and smartphone manufacturers (one idea being to put tactor-enabled thumbsticks on the side of phones), it’s not just an attempt to find a commercial solution. The technique has been developed as part of research into the way the brain processes information communicated via the sense of touch.

In previous studies Provancher found that skin-stretching devices built into a steering wheel were just as effective at telling a driver which way to turn as vocal cues. The gaming research was designed partly to check if the brain can adjust to process the signals when the thumbs were bent and at an angle as with a console controller set-up, which proved to be the case.

(Image credit:  Markus Montandon, University of Utah.)

Geeks are Sexy needs YOUR help. Learn more about how YOU can support us here.