Virtual reality and augmented reality have delivered realistic visuals and sound to virtual experiences, but they’re completely lacking a sense of touch. Tactaiwants to change that with a new kind of multi-modal touch feedback technology.
If it works, it could lead to a new generation of VR and AR headsets that can add a new sense to immersive experiences and games. Tactai’s technology goes further than past touch feedback — or haptic — devices since it gives you a much more fine-grained sense of what you’re touching, based on a demo I saw. Tactai hopes to be part of the standard technologies in the next set of VR devices.
“We want to bring a rich sense of touch into the digital world to empower our interactions in a unique way,” said Steven Domenikos, cofounder and CEO of Tactai, in an interview with GamesBeat.
Waltham, Mass.-based Tactai has created software that shows off its “ultra high-fidelity haptics.” The technology is in its prototype stage, and the company is seeking partners to bring products to the market that can enhance our digital interactions. Domenikos believes the tech can be used in everything from smartphones to pen-based tablets to VR and AR hand controllers.
In the demo, which you can see in the video, Domenikos used a standard pen input device to allow me to feel the texture of objects that I touched. When he activated the software associated with a stone tile, I moved the pen over the screen showing the stone tile. It felt rough and bumpy, just like real stone. The pen vibrated and enabled me to feel the sensations.
He also showed me the feeling of ABS plastic as well. It can give you the sensation of pressure and counter pressure. You can feel temperature, softness, hardness, smoothness, curvature, and texture as you do in the real world. Tactai has created algorithms to replay fine patterns, softness, textures, pressure, heat, cold, friction, and other sensations in a finger-sized device. When I tried the demo, I could feel how the sandpaper felt different from the glass, and the stone felt different from the plastic.
He also showed me a fingertip wearable device that Tactai built, so you can touch and feel and manipulate an object in VR. When you combine these feelings with visuals and sound (and maybe one day smell and taste), you’ll get a much richer sense of a digital world. Without touch, the VR worlds that you experience can feel hollow, Domenikos said. Touch creates a much better sense of “presence” — or the feeling you have been transported to another reality.
“Without touch, VR is interesting, but touch can make it compelling,” Domenikos said. “What will make the experiences variable is the type of hardware.”
The company is delivering the software that it will license to partners, and it has built reference hardware that can serve as the foundation for the products that the partners are creating. Tactai creates a new material by scanning it into digital form, and then, it creates a waveform that mimics mother nature.
“That is all done with software,” he said. “We take into consideration the real-time movements of the user. If you press hard, it feels different. If you press soft, it feels another way.”
Domenikos believes that compelling, immersive AR and VR experiences can be created for gaming, e-commerce, training, film, and education. Tactai already worked with Ericsson to co-develop a tactile VR experience for mobile devices at the CES tech trade show in Las Vegas in January. Tactai is working with an online retailer, a digital media distributor, and a credit card processor. Of course, the ultimate customers could be the porn companies.
“When I give a demo, people always talk about that,” Domenikos said. “We’re all imaginative people.”
Domenikos hopes a shared VR experience will be possible — like playing a Jenga tabletop blocks game with a friend.
“What’s going to drive this is the ability to have a more shared, immersive experience,” he said.
Domenikos started the company with his cofounder Katherine Kuchenbecker, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in 2014, and they formally incorporated in January 2016. Their work was based on work on haptics technology that went back 15 years.
Rivals include Immersion, Tactical Haptics, and Ultrahaptics. But Tactai wants to create fine-grained sensations, which can be localized to particular areas. It can give you a sense of touching a keyboard when you tap a part of a touchscreen on a smartphone or a tablet. Right now, phones have haptic actuators that are meant only to vibrate a smartphone. That’s very low fidelity and coarse-grained touch feedback, Domenikos said.
“We can now deliver a very rich sensation that can be used in a variety of sensations,” Domenikos said.
The company has about 15 employees and contractors in the Boston area and Montreal. Revenue will start coming this year from licenses.
The Oculus Touch controllers debuted a year ago today, enabling players to eschew a traditional gamepad while using the Rift headset. In VR, this has become an expected way of interaction, whether you’re using the Touch or HTC Vive controllers. To mark the occasion, Oculus has released the beta version of Rift Core 2.0, an update to the Rift user interface that streamlines navigation.
Looking back at the 2016 and 2017, Oculus vice president of content Jason Rubin says that VR developers have made strides in working out the key issue in VR: locomotion. It’s still a big hurdle moving forward, but some games have come up with clever solves in the last year and a half.
Rubin calls out Crytek’s The Climb and Ready at Dawn’s Echo Arena as two games that implemented hand-based movement in their virtual environments, which reduces motion sickness and “tricks your brain into siding with your eyes over your inner ear.” Ubisoft designed Eagle Flight so that it restricts peripheral vision when you approach objects, which also improves the comfort of moving around in VR.
Oculus made a big push in 2016 to get as many titles as possible on the platform. This year, it focused on building out its library with quality titles.
“I think we’ve achieved that now. We have over 300 titles in the store that support Touch,” said Rubin in a phone call with GamesBeat. “There’s even more if you talk about gamepad titles on top of that. We have 2,000 titles total on the Oculus platform. There’s a lot of stuff in the store and a lot of it is high quality.”
One such game is From Other Suns, a science-fiction shooter from developer Gunfire Games. It’s a studio founded by vets from Vigil Games, which developed Darksiders and Darksiders 2 as well as Chronos, a role-playing game in VR. From Other Suns is an ambitious undertaking — a roguelike where you’re a spaceship pilot in a procedurally generated universe. You can fight enemies as a single player or sync up with two friends for co-op action. Gunfire designed it for longer play sessions, similar to traditional non-VR games.
“We really try to hit that mark with something you can sit down and enjoy,” said Gunfire’s design director John Pearl in a phone call. “It’ll be comfortable. You’ll be able to play it for hours, as much as you can, with the headset on. We try to shoot for those types of experiences versus more of a technical experience, or something that’s just 30 minutes or an hour long. We want to give you that whole game experience.”
An open beta gave Gunfire a lot of needed feedback, which they used to keep tweaking the movements. Eventually, instead of a one-size-fits-all solution, they opted to create as many options as possible so that folks could customize their movements in the game.
“It’s tricky, because everybody has different triggers,” said Pearl. “Some people don’t like snap turning and for some people snap turning is perfect. Some people want to move in the direction their head is facing and some people want to move in an absolute direction. It’s been really interesting trying to find a happy medium that caters to everyone.”
Gunfire also spent a lot of time on its user interfaces. Everything had to be intuitive, avoiding the complex for a natural way of interacting with the environment. It had to find a way to present information in a “real world, tactile” fashion. It settled on the solution of enabling players to access a minimal menu of options — selecting a shield or weapon, for instance — with a flick of the wrist.
“That’s where it started coming around to: What’s always available to you?” said Gunfire’s president David Adams. “Well, your arms are always available to you, so we can start putting interfaces on your arms. How we broke up the interface, between what’s on the bridge and what’s on your arm and what’s on all the terminals and all the stations, that was a constant process of trying something and failing and trying something again and failing until things worked.”
From Other Suns also drew from pop culture knowledge that already exists, such as ideas from science-fiction movies.
“You see movies and you think, how would this operate?” said Gunfire’s development director Ben Gabbard. “How would you really go through things if you were on a ship in a Firefly episode and be able to relate to it? Would you look at your wrist? Would that make sense, that communication piece? How would that operate? We just continued to percolate on that as we moved forward.”
Rubin says that looking toward 2018, players will start seeing bigger titles from Oculus Story Studio, the company’s in-house development team. In 2017, the plan was for Story Studio to put out a game every month. Next year, it will be focusing on taking more time and creating “bigger, deeper” projects. And it expects that other developers out there will be tackling larger, more ambitious titles as well.
“Developers who wanted to work longer on a product have now had the hardware long enough to make it,” said Rubin. “But more important, developers, especially developers that work across platforms, can expect to make real money from the VR business. There’s a lot of Sony [PlayStation VR]s out there. They’ve made that very public. There’s also a good number of PC VR systems out there. With Microsoft’s entry, that’s just going to grow. If you make a nice cross-platform product, you can expect to address a reasonably sized and quickly growing marketplace in 2018.”
Increasingly, players are able to experience VR titles from triple-A developers, such as Bethesda’s Doom VFR for the Vive and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR for the Vive and PSVR. Fallout 4 VR will be coming later this month. Multiplayer titles like Star Trek: Bridge Crew and the popular Rec Room support cross-compatibility between the Rift, Vive, and PSVR, making it possible for folks to experience it no matter which headset they own. And at the Oculus Connect conference in October, Oculus announced that it is working closely with Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment on a new VR game for 2019.
But Rubin offers a note of caution when it comes to porting blockbusters to VR. He’s wary of adapting a game to VR instead of building it up as native content. Some experiences, such as simulators, work intuitively in VR, but games like first-person shooters or third-person action games won’t necessarily work.
“When you try to bring all those conceits and all that baggage through the translator of not starting from scratch, there isn’t poetry sometimes on the other end,” said Rubin. “I’m dubious. I understand the drive to do it. The budgets of those titles, the amount of assets, it’s massive. But when you do the translation you get mixed results.”
Rubin predicts that social will be a big part of “the magic of VR,” a stance that Oculus’s parent company Facebook is also committed to. Facebook Spaces, for instance, is virtual hangout spot for friends.
“Someone will make the first [massively multiplayer online game],” said Rubin. “We really don’t have one in VR. That’s going to be a killer app. We haven’t even seen what that looks like, but I guarantee, MMOs are going to be unbelievably successful in VR. There are so many genres we haven’t dug deeply into. I think it’s impossible to know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work in the long run.”
Rubin also says that VR is a chance to bring in more diversity into the games industry. It would be tough for indie developers to disrupt the pantheon of triple-A giants such as Electronic Arts, but a new medium means everyone is figuring things out at the same time. It doesn’t exactly level the playing field, but it’s a start. Some of VR’s biggest hits, such as Owlchemy Labs’s Job Simulator and Against Gravity’s Rec Room, are by indie devs.
“Those are great opportunities for new voices to become senior leaders in the future,” said Rubin. “Because of that, and because of Oculus’s desire to have diverse voices, we have been focusing on trying to get more people to make more games, a more diverse crowd to make games and other things. Additionally, indie developers are always creative.”
“For me, the next big hurdle is the level of—how compelling is the content?” said Pearl. “There’s been a lot of experimentation. There are lots of different ways to tackle locomotion. People have put a lot of time into how you manipulate objects, how you shoot guns, how you do melee. There’s certainly more of that to be done. The next frontier, especially from a gaming perspective specifically, is taking all that information and creating larger, more compelling experiences for players.”
Of course, locomotion and getting VR headsets into more homes are still challenges. Gabbard says that tethered headsets remain off-putting, and this is an issue that Oculus is hoping its Santa Cruz headset will help solve. And VR still requires a lot of PC horsepower to run. Rubin says that all of these challenges will be overcome in the long run. For now, it’s an incremental process.
“Again, it’s stepping stones. Nothing is going to be an utter revolution,” said Rubin. “That’s just not the way the games business or the technology business works. It looks like that sometimes from the outside, because people aren’t paying attention to the first steps. They only see the big loud vivid thing that gets it. But we’re taking these little steps with every title. It’s all headed in the right direction.”
By all accounts, VR has slumped into a gap of disappointment. However, developers seem to still remain optimistic and ready to tackle the challenges ahead.
It has been almost two years since the first high-end VR headsets hit the shelves, generating excitement and headlines insisting that the future is here. Now, as we reach the end of 2017, those headlines couldn’t be more different. Barely a week goes by without another article detailing VR’s demise, a VR studio’s closure, or explaining why CCP pulling out of VR development shows the market isn’t viable for many. As the CEO of a big VR-focused development studio, these reports have not made things easier. But we’ve still found success, and the market can support your success too.
If you move past the deluge of negativity and look at the numbers, you’ll see that VR is quietly and confidently finding its feet. Headset sales may have wobbled earlier in 2017, but since September they have found their stride following price drops for the Rift and Vive, and PSVR stock hitting shelves in much greater numbers following increased supply. Yes, there is clearly a long way to go, and “mass market VR” is still years away; but as a VR developer, I’m encouraged.
So, for those developers who believe in VR as we do, here are some tips for staying commercially competitive as VR continues to mature:
Whether that’s the size of your studio, or the size of your game, as a developer, you should be thinking of size at every turn. For instance, you need to be smart about the genre and budget of your VR games. The market just isn’t big enough to justify budgets of more than a million dollars without funding support from headset manufacturers. So, rather than making the big VR game of your dreams, keep that on hold for a few years, and find a concept that is innovative, is in a genre that feels commercial, and can be achieved on a sensible budget.
This last part is particularly important – I have seen many great VR games fail to get anywhere near break-even because they were just too expensive and too ambitious, and the market simply isn’t there yet. We did this with our first high-end VR title, The Assembly. The budget was too large (over $1.5 million) and it’ll take longer than hoped for us to break even on it.
The same principle holds true for how you develop a game. Consider avoiding linear games where the player passes through lots of geometry that they only see once. Think about repeatability and reusing assets and gameplay mechanics in smart ways, as we did with our upcoming title Shooty Fruity, to make the most of your development budget. In addition, adapt your game concepts by reacting to the market changes and by analyzing data. For example, The Assembly initially launched without motion control (this was back in the days before Oculus Touch launched!). We added motion control because of customer feedback, and this has helped long-term sales of the game.
Incidentally, we’re finding that long-term sales on our VR games are significantly higher than we expected, so it’s well worth pushing this area, running promotions and getting into seasonal sales. We’ve now launched seven VR games and experiences and we’re using data from those games to help us focus in on what works and avoid what doesn’t. Our new game, Shooty Fruity, combines many of the lessons that we have learnt, and hopefully we will see this reflected in its popularity when it launches just before Christmas.
While VR is still a relatively small market, you may want to balance your studio’s workload and look at doing funded projects alongside self-funded games. Step back, look at your team’s strengths and weaknesses, and then leverage the skills of your team to generate revenue that will help support your own projects. Think about working with other companies to co-develop/co-fund your games, and carefully explore all the different areas of VR. Some of you may find opportunities in the engineering space, others in the design market.
Here at nDreams, we’ve just completed an ambitious VR arcade title for a leading company and have just undertaken a big project in the social VR space with an entertainment giant. This gives us some additional revenue streams, broadens our skills as a studio, and builds strong relationships with some truly great partners. There are many other areas of VR opening up, so look for projects that suit your team, enable innovation, and generate revenue to support your original games.
Think about the kind of people you hire very carefully. The importance of getting the right people in the right roles can’t be overstated, and I can tell you from experience how much of a positive impact the right people can make. If you’re going to be doing funded work alongside your own projects, make sure you have a healthy balance of specialists and generalists, and that you’re able to use the freelance job market wisely to hire talented people during peaks, and scale down if there is a lull between projects. Work with local colleges and universities to meet graduates and make sure you have a healthy flow of new talent coming into the studio.
Finally, don’t let the doom-mongers get you down. After the huge amount of hype about VR prior to launch, there was bound to be a backlash until headset technology improves, costs come down, and quality experiences emerge. Whilst the market has been slower than many expected, we’re seeing strong indications that it is starting to grow, boosted by those recent price drops, new headsets entering the market – hello Microsoft MR! – and now blockbuster IPs like Skyrim and L.A. Noire entering the market backed by TV ad campaigns.
At nDreams, we’ve already sold 300,000 VR games and generated $3.5 million in VR revenue. I’m proud of this start, and I hope these figures will give you confidence as a developer that there is already a viable VR market out there, and that the excitement that so many of us have about VR is justified. Just make sure you’re smart and sensible in the meantime. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “The reports of [VR’s] death are greatly exaggerated”.
The Game Awards takes place on at 5:30 pm Pacific time Thursday. Now in its fourth year, the event gives gamers their chance to beat their chests about their favorite games, and it lets the industry honor those who created them. It also features revelations from some of the biggest game companies about the new games that are coming in 2018.
Geoff Keighley, awards’ host and organizer, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the show will feature world premiere announcements of two new games based on properties that players have never seen before. It will also feature announcements such as new map for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the most popular new games of 2017 with more than 20 million copies sold. (Here’s the list of nominees).
“At least two games are brand-new game worlds that no one has ever seen before,” Keighley said. “It becomes a sport to guess which ones they will be.”
Keighley said the show at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles has evolved into something unique. It’s not the Oscars, as many people cast it to be to the annoyance of gamers, who don’t want their medium compared to other entertainment. It welcomes game fans among celebrities such as Conan O’Brien, but it’s not loaded with Hollywood celebrities who don’t understand or appreciate games.
“Because it represents our industry, a lot of thought and care goes into what we put into the show,” Keighley said. “How do we represent gamers? What’s the right tone? One incident is all it takes to become a meme on the Internet. It represents gamers and the industry, and if we are a little bit off, it misrepresents our industry and the people in it.”
“It’s not the Oscars. It’s not the GDC awards,” he said. “It’s The Game Awards. It’s a balance of awards and games that are coming in the future.”
All the major first-party game platforms and third-party game makers will show up and put competition aside for an evening, Keighley said.
Purists tell Keighley that it should only be about awards, but he said that polls suggest that gamers favor the revelations. The combination of awards and revelations gives the game creators the largest possible audience for their big moments.
“We’re going to bring out Carol Shaw, who was the first successful video game programmer of River Raid back in 1980,” Keighley said. “Her story has been lost in time. We’re going to bring her to the show, and millions of people will be able to understand her story because we have these world premieres.”
The show’s balance came over time, as past events have been criticized for some faux pas or snub. Some of the reaction to the initial pitch for The Game Awards was skeptical the first time around. Previously, the show aired on TV.
“We’re moving in the right direction and I don’t think we need to pivot,” Keighley said.
“In 2014, some of the reaction to my first pitch was whether it was worth it, since it wasn’t on TV,” Keighley said. “Is it even worth it? Now, four years later, it feels like we made the right choice. Now, people say it’s the new TV. You’re digital. Most of the partners feel like they don’t want to be on TV anymore. This is the way they can reach the whole world.”
Last year, viewership for the livestream and video on demand was 8.6 million viewers, up 65 percent. A big part of the growth was China, and so it’s no surprise that a category has been added for the “best Chinese game.”
Keighley said the categories have changed over time, and this year features a new student game award.
“We have trending gamer for influencers, and we are adding student game award, which is awesome,” he said. “Kids are coming from all around the world. We can make a difference. There’s a showcase for games for impact. We can recognize some games and really help them potentially succeed. Destiny and Call of Duty are going to be fine without The Game Awards, and they are a big part of the show. If you do all of the standard game categories, you get the same games getting nominated for everything. With new categories, it allows more diversity on stage.”
Indie games have a couple of categories this year, including best indie game and best indie debut game. The show also changed the eligibility requirements to allow Early Access games, as PUBG is still in Early Access on Steam and hasn’t officially been published yet. There’s also an award for best ongoing game, with nominees such as Grand Theft Auto Online, which has had big updates this year.
This year, the awards feature a performance by the band Phoenix, cellist Tina Guo, and a full orchestra. And it will have presenters such as Hideo Kojima of Kojima Productions, motion capture actor Andy Serkis (who is making a Planet of the Apes game), director Guillermo Del Toro (a close friend of Kojima’s), comedian Aisha Tyler (who has Ubisoft connections), and actor Jack Black (who voiced games such as Brutal Legend).
“These are folks that care about games and want to celebrate game creators,” Keighley said. “They are not just filling out another spot on their press circuit.”
I asked how the show would handle controversies like Electronic Arts’ loot crates in Star Wars: Battlefront II.
“We can reference some of that stuff and it would be wrong to not reflect the zeitgeist,” he said. “There could be a lot of snark about the industry in general, but I really want something that is positive and uplifting that celebrates our love of video games.”
The public is voting for the first time, and votes have climbed above 5 million across all categories. On Twitch, viewers can predict which game will win an award and Twitch will keep a running tally of who guesses the most accurately.
“We’re see the difference between what the jury picked and what the fans picked,” Keighley said. “With Twitch, it gamifies the show as you vote in real time. It makes it feel more interactive.”
Facebook will also broadcast the event live and influencer Andrea Rene will interview the winners as they come off the stage. The show will be broadcast in 4K on YouTube. Mixer will give away free games if you watch the show there.
“We let people watch it any way they want,” he said.