Last month, in Tokyo, I was shown a new technology that could end up replacing motor-based controller rumble as we know it. It's called ViviTouch, and it comes from Artificial Muscle Inc., a Bayer MaterialScience company. Their "high-definition feel" uses a...well, a sort of artificial muscle to give controllers and other devices tactile feedback that actually has varying degrees of real, feel-able movement.
This is one of those things you'll have to actually feel to understand, but I'll do my best to give you some idea of what it was like from my hands-on time.
I could tell you that their tech centers around an electroactive polymer that is comprised or a think layer of dielectric polymer film sandwiched between two conductive electrodes, but you'd get a better mental picture by actually thinking of this tech as artificial muscle. Looking at the inside of one of the ultra-thin mechanisms you'll see what looks like black ink. This ink can freely expand and contract when given electrical charges, and seeing it move looks just like moving muscle. Seriously, this stuff looks like it comes right out of a sci-fi novel.
In the component's final form, that black goo has a weighted mass attached to top of it, and when a charge is sent to the mechanism, the ink contracts or expands, thus moving the weight. You can take this whole thin sandwich and put it in anything: controllers, phones, headsets, even furniture.
Various ViviTouch component sizes shown above. The black bits in each can freely expand and contract with an electrical charge.
I first was able to try ViviTouch out with an iPod Touch. It was fitted with a sort of case that had the shaker device inside. Playing Tetris Pinball was a surprise. I'm used to a mobile device giving of a sort of one-note buzz or vibration, but through ViviTouch it felt like I was actually feeling the pinball hitting surfaces in a little tiny pinball machine in the palm of my hand.
The company was able to crack an iPad open and put one of the shakers inside, making for a seamless presentation. I played a tilt-to-roll style labyrinth game on the iPad and came away really impressed with this tech. I could actually feel the ball rolling against the wood, and when the ball hit the wooden side of the labyrinth, I could feel a really convincing thud through my palms. The movement was so subtle when rolling, and then quite pronounced when the ball hit the side. "High-definition feel" is a silly buzz term, but it best describes what I felt when I tried it out.
ViviTouch actuators are super thin and have a very low power requirement, so they can be placed in just about anything that vibrating motors are currently placed in. I would really like to see how a game console controller could be improved. This technology could be the next big thing in immersive gaming.