Haptic feedback

Why even basic accessories can make virtual reality seem real

There is an alien in the space station. The motion tracker scans my surroundings, but nothing moves. I creep into the next room and duck behind a stack of cargo. The rumble of the spacecraft creeps up my spine as I stare at the tracker. Suddenly, there is a blip. The alien’s steps grow louder. Rumble, rumble, rumble.

I have played Alien: Isolation in virtual reality before, but this time there is a small difference: I’m sitting in a chair made by a startup called BRAINFIZZVR that vibrates. It’s subtle, but it’s enough to convince my body to join my mind in the virtual space station.

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Everyone who tries Oculus Rift feels its pull. Your brain wants to believe what it is seeing is real, and it’s willing to play along until something trips you up. For me, that moment always comes when there’s no haptic feedback. I want to feel the lightsaber in my hands and the zombies’ fingers on my back.

At first I thought that might require specialty vests that put pressure on exactly the right places and custom controllers that look like guns (or paintbrushes!). But I don’t feel that way anymore. The chair I tried out is just a stripped-down version of the vibrating seats found in high-end movie theaters. When the alien finally caught me, sitting in the chair was enough to elevate giggly discomfort to an actual pounding heartbeat.

Just a few tables down from BrainFizzVr at the Founders and Investors VR meetup in San Francisco earlier this week was Stompz, a startup that makes motion sensors you strap to your feet. I was skeptical; I get intense vertigo almost every time I have to physically move my feet to walk around in VR.

Stompz motion trackers strap to your feet and allow you to walk in virtual reality.
Stompz motion trackers strap to your feet and allow you to walk in virtual reality.

But you don’t actually need to walk for Stompz to work. Just face your body in one direction and lift your legs up and down, and you move forward in virtual reality. Mismatched real and virtual motion can be a recipe for nausea, but I didn’t find that to be the case with Stompz. There wasn’t any vertigo either.

If you’re thinking about investing in your first virtual reality headset, do look into accessories. Maybe that means using Sixense joysticks over an XBox controller, or more natural hand and feet trackers. There’s no doubt that they bring a new level of immersion to the experience. But think about trying the more advanced rigs before you buy. They may appeal to some, but chances are more casual users can get by with a whole lot less.