Haptic technology in consumer devices are getting better quickly. It’s just happening in ways that are less dramatic than full body motion tracking or dazzling, high-resolution VR headsets.

Take the new Nintendo Switch console for example. The console comes with a technology Nintendo calls “HD Rumble”. This is a much more refined version of the controller rumble we first saw with devices such as the Playstation 1’s DualShock gamepad.

The HD Rumble in the Switch has proven to be shockingly good, with realistic simulations of marbles rolling, udders being tugged (don’t ask) and, er, jiggle physics [Really don’t ask-ed]. It’s actually mind-boggling to think that simply modifying vibrations in a very finely grained way can fool our sense of touch so well. This advancement is thanks to a mix of software and new rumble hardware in the form of linear actuators. The Oculus Touch has had linear actuator hardware from the start, but the software development kit hasn’t had support for the sort of finely-tuned haptic feedback we’re talking about here. That’s all changed now with the addition of “buffered haptics” in the Oculus developer documentation.

Getting Buff(er)

A buffer is basically a computer memory technique to make sure that information doesn’t get lost and can wait around until it’s needed. For example, your computer keyboard has a buffer which stores your keystroke for a little while until the computer is ready for them. If the computer gets completely stuck into one task you may see a delay between what you’re typing and what appears on the screen. If you’ve typed more than the buffer can hold any additional data is lost.

Buffers are used all over the place in the computer world to make sure that no data is lost and that everything runs smoothly.

Up to now it seems that software developers only had the option of using “unbuffered haptics” when making stuff to be consumed with the Touch controller. Basically this means that although the actuators in the controller are physically quite capable, the software only had the ability to ask for relatively crude changes in frequency and amplitude switches.

The introduction of buffered haptic support lets developers queue up a string of programmed command changes for the actuators, with the minimum gap between switches cut down from 33ms in the unbuffered case to 3.125ms.

This means that much more detailed haptics can be created for Oculus VR apps and hopefully we’ll soon see this implemented in actual games and simulators.

It Just Feels Right

Vibration-based haptic feedback just isn’t as sexy a feature as HD graphics or positional audio, but once you’ve felt the effects of the illusion in your own hands it’s hard to disagree about its importance for immersion. The developers now have the tools, only time will tell if they can make something magical with it.