University of Utah students, faculty create next-generation game controller

Published: Monday, Nov. 18 2013 6:15 p.m. MST

The University of Utah's Haptics and Embedded Mechatronics Laboratory lead product developer Markus Montandon demonstrates the company's new Reactive Grip in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. The new game controller developed at the University of Utah stretches and pulls on a player's skin to simulate realistic sensations of touch.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When people try a demo of the University of Utah's Reactive Grip game controller, they tend to have a similar reaction.

"The first response is always a 'wow' and a double-take when they look at their hand," said Markus Montandon, lead project developer for the new controller. "People are just so surprised at the difference between this and a simple vibration. Just that sense of connection to something virtual is, I think, what is most surprising."

Unlike most video game controllers that employ a simple buzzing or "rumble" function similar to a cellphone on vibrate mode, the Reactive Grip controller is equipped with a series of vertical plates that slide up and down during game play. The effect is one that pulls and stretches the palm of the hand to mimic the bouncing suspension of a dune buggy, the kickback of a revolver, the swing of a ball and chain or the stretch of a slingshot.

"The feedback that you’re receiving now ties directly into what you would be feeling if you were holding the real object in your hand," Montandon said. "It recreates the friction and the forces that you feel at your fingertips when you’re interacting with a real, physical object."

Researchers at the University of Utah's Haptics and Embedded Mechatronics Laboratory have been looking into reactive grip technology for roughly six years, he said, with the past year spent creating a working prototype of a next-generation game controller.

Montandon said touch feedback has been largely left behind in the gaming industry. While technological advancements have made visual and sound effects increasingly more lifelike, the sense of touch has been largely limited to the same "rumble" controllers introduced by the Nintendo 64 in the 1990s.

"It’s been left in the dust," he said. "If we were still at the level we were 15 years ago with visuals and sound, people wouldn’t be as excited to get the next game system."

But with the Reactive Grip, game players can feel the weight of a virtual object bouncing up and down or the stretch and bend of an item in their hands.

"That is something you just can’t do with rumble," Montandon said. "It definitely goes beyond the buzzing and vibration that you have with a rumble controller."

A fundraising campaign in connection with the Reactive Grip project has raised more than $70,000 in one week through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The project has a final goal of raising $175,000 by Dec. 11 and is already the most successful official University of Utah crowdfunding campaign in the school's history.

"This has been a really highly successful campaign, so the U. is very excited about it," said Nick Swisher, a marketing manager at the University of Utah Technology and Venture Commercialization Office.

Individuals who donate $179 or more will receive a Reactive Grip controller, or a left- and right-handed pair for $349 or more. Montandon said the controllers are currently compatible only with PCs, but part of the goal of the Kickstarter campaign is to get the technology out to developers who will then drive interest in developing more games and applications for the technology.

With technology like reactive grip, coupled with advancements in virtual reality goggles, Montandon guesses that in roughly five or six years it will be commonplace for gamers to have immersive, virtual reality-equipped consoles in their homes.

"Eventually these technologies are getting to the point where it is feasible to have them in your home or to have them in an arcade where you can go and experience something that is beyond a standard video game looking at a flat screen," he said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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