Interview with Tactical Haptics' Professor William Provancher

At GDC 2013 towards the end of March, an organization known as Tactical Haptics revealed a rather revolutionary new piece of motion control technology. It's called Reactive Grip, and combined with tech such as the Oculus Rift, it could very well revolutionize the way we game. Last week, in the wake of Reactive Grip's impending Kickstarter campaign; I decided to track down its inventor, Professor William Provancher, for an interview about its creation and development.

About the Inventor

Professor William Provancher got his start at the University of Michigan, where he received a Bachelor of Science And Master's of Science in engineering. Shortly thereafter, he moved on to Stanford University, where he attained a PHD in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked as a design engineer at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, before eventually settling into a job as an associate professor at the University of Utah, teaching courses in mechatronics, mechanical design, and haptics.

Somewhere along the line, he developed an interest in gaming. The rest, as they say, is history. The more he played, the more he realized that the experience was...lacking something. It didn't take him long to realize that his experience - and his research - could easily be applied to video games. Thus was the concept behind Reactive Grip born. 

Since then, William has formed Tactical Haptics, attended several conferences with a working prototype, and begun making preparations for their Kickstarter. Professor Provancher and his team will be attending Neurogaming 2013 today and tomorrow to demo the technology - stop by if you're in the area. 

About the Invention

Reactive Grip is billed as a new generation of motion control, with full-hand touch feedback and complete freedom of motion. It utilizes a number of sliding bars to simulate torque and force, which ultimately adds an entirely new, tactile experience to gaming. In makes rumble packs, force feedback, and traditional motion control solutions look absolutely rudimentary. 

Currently, in addition to its obvious merits where virtual reality is concerned; Professor Provancher and his team are exploring the scientific and medical applications of Reactive Grip. 

For more information, visit the Tactical Haptics website or follow them on Facebook or Twitter

What was the biggest challenge you encountered during the development process?


To be honest, most of what we encountered were simple technical challenges. We'd been making related devices that start off by providing feedback by themselves, then more recently, we moved to feedback within devices. There weren't many technical challenges associated with making the prototype; it was heavily based on prior designs we've done in my lab. It was a very small adaptation. 

The biggest challenge was getting the motion controller "married up" to Unity. To do that, we had to go through and write the USB device driver. Once that was done, everytthing after was relatively straightforward, and much easier than many of our past projects. Not very glorious, I know. 

Currently, the model that everyone's seen - the one that everyone's buzzing about - was built with the Razer Hydra. With the wide range of motion-control peripherals on the market, what was it that caused you to choose the Hydra for your prototype?


Compared to other motion controllers on the market, the Hydra was more open for development, while also being based on PC, where we do all of our development. There were also certain functions we wanted which wouldn't have been available on the Wii or Move, such as free position tracking. Lastly, peripherals like the Kinect - which were also considered - simply didn't have the update rates required to have things feel continuous in a virtual environment. You have to be able to immediately respond with feedback as you're moving around, otherwise it doesn't feel realistic. 

Do you foresee any road-blocks further down the line concerning compatibility with other peripherals?


Not with compatibility so much as with the developers themselves. Particularly on consoles, the developers have to show an interest - to be more precise, gaming, except for PC-based gaming, is very closed as a field. There's a lot of opportunity, but it's not really necessarily going to result in going on to other platforms. It's very much based in the decisions of these other companies.

The whole  purpose of Kickstarter is to get this technology out there. If people like it, it proliferates. It's much easier to see to these initial stages of distribution in a PC-based gaming environment. 

Thus far, how would you describe your experience with Kickstarter? Have you been on the platform before?


I've been observing various projects, and supported a couple in the past. More recently, we formed our company to count on Kickstarter in preparation of doing our own campaign. I don't have any personal experience putting anything on Kickstarter before, though as a donator, it's mostly been a positive experience. I've noticed many cases where businesses that received funding would have had a hard time getting started otherwise. 

Frankly, that's the big issue with bringing new hardware to market. The formula is; if you spend two years working in your gaming studios, you release the next version of this great game, and you'll get a quarter billion or a billion dollars of revenue. Why bother to change this formula? You don't know whether a new property or peripheral will ever grow, ever catch on. It's a bit risky for a developer to ever develop software. 


That's another roadblock - without good titles and content, new hardware is worthless. There's thus this very daunting cycle: you need to have the hardware installed for developers to spend their efforts, but they won't spend effort unless they have a guaranteed install base. 

I'm a firm believer in how feedback technology interacts with gaming, and that it's a huge step forward for an immersive experience; one that will really be compatible with a wireless controller and really give you a feeling that you're actually in the game. The problem is that developers might not feel the same way.  

You mentioned true immersion, and I couldn't help but think of the Oculus Rift. What relation does Reactive Grip bear to it? Have you spoken to the developers?


The short answer is yes. Palmer and some of his co-workers tried out our demo at the conference, and they seemed to like it. This next weekend, our hope is to discuss things with them a little further going forward. That's all I can say - they seem to be interested, and it's kind of a work in progress at this point. We bought an Oculus for our lab, we are going through and integrating with Oculus, Razer Hydra, and Touch feedback technology.

It'll be pretty darned cool. 

Do you have any specific games in mind for Reactive Grip?


Skyrim's a really obvious one, and since there's already been - I don't know how complete it is - but there's been at least some implementation for Rift and the Hydra in the game, at least portrayed in some videos I've seen. Extending those mods by adding in our feedback would be kind of an obvious thing, given that some of our current demos did a very good job portraying both melee and weapons fire. I can see going through and having lots of medieval fighting implements, including a bow and arrow, blades; all of these things can function really nicely with the technology.

We're also kind of working on some sports demos right now; tennis, golf, and fly fishing demos. Those are coming along, so I can see especially a really nice implementation for Cabella's Fly Fishing Game or some specialty golf games out there. Touch control would enrich them quite a bit. 


I'm a big fan of Left 4 Dead, too, so I think it would be a really awesome addition to Left 4 Dead.

We don't have any games of our own planned. We're more concerned with hardware and the interface code to drive the hardware from a software perspective. We're not really game developers - I have really good gaming students, and they've made these really great demos, but we'll need to get through and partner with people who are interested in either doing mods or integrating our feedback tech into full game implementations.

That's one of the things I'm in search of now, to find those people who are interested, some of those developers did give us their cards and contact information at GDC.

So does that mean we might see some titles in the future developed specifically for the tech?


One can hope. What I'd really like to do is...well, the kickstarter campaign would be focused on developers, mostly because we don't really have the ability to incorporate the technology. Ideally, we'd like to find a partner who, if we release the hardware six months down the line from the campaign, we'll have a modded title which incorporates this type of feedback. That's the idea we're working on. One would hope that the number of fully implemented titles which incorporate our feedback will grow from there.

I'm new to the gaming community, so I don't know how naïve it is to think that some of the modding community would be interested in pushing this stuff forward.

Have you spoken to Valve at all?


Some guys from Valve came by at GDC and tried a demo, and I guess I would say that it's hard for me to gauge their level of interest. I know that they're very focused on their efforts to get the PC Gamer on the couch - I guess that's their way to characterize what they're doing. I think that they have their own fish to fry in the short term. My technology is maybe of interest generally, but I think that like most projects within companies, you need to remain focused.

My sense is that they're focused on other things right now.

In the future, maybe, if Reactive Grip takes off, they'll make a licensing offer. I can presume a lot of things, though - I think everyone can make an offer for Reactive Grip. I'm a strong proponent - I developed it, and I think it's a huge step forward from things in the past. I think when people see the device- you see them smile, you see them light up - there's value there. I think step one is getting people to recognize that they like this or they don't. Step two is showing people they can make money.

That's been the biggest issue. You need to make it very simple. When you add cost into a system, you're not sure whether that cost will add enough value to your system; you don't know that people will actually pay the extra cost. That's essentially what my campaign is focused on: gauging whether there's enough interest to have people pay some real money, as opposed to GDC where you walk up and it's free to try; having technology that's good enough and cheap enough that people will actually pay for it.

What are your future plans for Reactive Grip? What about Tactical Haptics?


One of our past game controllers looks more like an Xbox-style controller. There are some iterations of that kicking around that we've made and tried. There's also another device that you kind of hold with your index finger and thumb, and that's actually something that has applications in the area of robotic surgery and/or upper limb rehabilitation in terms of guiding the arm motions of people whether you're in a surgical scenario (maybe surgical training for teaching people who to suture), or you're going to represent the forces experienced by the robot, you could portray the forces to give feedback within the interface.

In terms of more direct things related to reactive grip, there are also some other ideas I've had in terms of making a cell phone peripheral - whether it's hooked up for navigation purposes - providing tactile direction cues, or hooking it up to a cell phone game and being able to portray interesting touch feedback that way. The answer is, yes, there's lots of other things planned in the works. We'll initially get through the kickstarter launch, see if anyone's interested in this implementation, and then we'll see whether that's successful or not, then try and drive this type of technology into other markets.

We'll continue to do more longer-term research focused towards surgical and other medical applications, but that's probably a longer-term thing, over the course of the next several years, as opposed to cell phones, which might be a year or two away.

Still working up to the launch - doing things now like the project showed at GDC was put together inside of a month including the development of the prototypes. Got back from GDC, refurbished it to run at the World Haptics Conference in Korea, going to the World Gaming Conference this week. Once we're done doing conferences, we'll try to figure things out so that we can manufacture and assemble these in higher quantities than the twos and threes we've got now. Basically, we'll start getting all our ducks in a row in a week or so once we settle down from conferences. Going to Neurogaming this week.

Are you considering bringing this technology to E3? That seems like a perfect place to demo it.


Wasn't planning to demo this at E3 - I know of E3. We definitely won't go,because if we're going to do kickstarter this year, we're going to need to hunker down and focus on design iterations, figuring out costs, and logistics. We need to focus. If we keep on running from conference to conference to conference, we won't get any work done.

What's the target launch for the Kickstarter?

I can't tell you for sure.  My goal is to have it up at the end of summer. I'll purposely leave it a little bit vague, because I need to get a few things figured out before, including all the social networking stuff that needs to take place in advance of a successful Kickstarter (at least, that's what I'm told).

It's just getting your ducks in a row, and we still have many ducks to line up, we'll say. As you can see, I'm starting to get into that realm, setting up a Twitter and Facebook account, trying to keep people informed when we're doing demos, when we develop new demos, what's upcoming. All of that's kind of in its infancy, and frankly I'm kind of new to a lot of the social media stuff; I haven't really done that in the past since I've been so focused on work.

Is there anything else you want to mention?


There's one thing I should mention, that could put things in perspective: the reason why the technological talents weren't really in making the device itself. Most of the research necessary for the device was already present when we started working on it. The past four years working on feedback technology has made it so that the most realized iteration you see in those videos is actually a simplified device based on tech we'd already made.

All of this past research has been funded by the US National Science Foundation, so it's actually been great place to start from - actually, I wrote a proposal once upon a time in 2007, maybe that we could use feedback for direction cues, force feedback. Recently, in the last year or so, have started looking specifically at applications that include gaming. I think it's probably prudent to give a shout out to acknowledge that a good part of this was possible because of the funding that I received from the National SF in the past years, as well as the graduate students that have worked on this technology over the years, too.

Because of the funding, we got 'recognized' in the Coburn Report as a waste of taxpayer money. Ironically, that actually gave us a ton of good publicity.