How Stretching Your Thumbs Could Make Your Games Feel Better

How Stretching Your Thumbs Could Make Your Games Feel Better

The University of Utah News Center reported today that their engineers are hard at work developing a new video game peripheral that stretches the skin on your thumbs.

But why, you ask me, would I want little red tactors located on the centre of the controller’s joystick to awkwardly move my thumb skin around? Because it might help your games feel more real. It’s an advancement in haptic technology and sensory feedback. In addition to the visual and audio feedback you already get from games, this controller wants to send you information through touch.

Through this skin stimulation, the peripheral is able to translate in-game events to your brain. Little movements by the tactors protray different activities, like crawling in prone or bracing for the impact of explosions. But what separates these motions from your standard vibration in controllers is that the tactors send the added detail of the direction of your wiggling on the ground, or the angle of the missile in question. The tactor does its best to mimic these actions, letting the skin on your thumbs feel them and send these cues to your brain.

You can see demonstrations of five basic movements — prone crawl, bounce, circular, wave, pulse — in the video above.

This haptic communication is perhaps best portrayed by the fishing game simulator, Feelin’ Fishy, where you can feel fish and waves alike tugging on the line through the swivels of the tactors. The tactors effectively help you to hook a fish onto your line by letting you know when a fish is biting.

The idea for this device wasn’t always meant for gaming, however. BBC reports that the National Science Foundation originally offered the $US150,000 research grant to the team of engineers to develop a steering wheel that would tell drivers when to turn left or right.

Assistant professor of mechanical engineering William Provancher tells the University of Utah News Center, “We have developed feedback modes that enhance immersiveness and realism for gaming scenarios such as collision, recoil from a gun, the feeling of being pushed by ocean waves or crawling prone in a first-person shooter game.”

But what are the engineers’ more practical plans for this kind of device? Well, Provancher says that he hopes it will be ready in anticipation of next generation consoles within the next few years. He’s also hopeful that the peripheral will be a resource to mobile gamers, with their devices plugging into the controller. As of now, Provancher has pitched the controller to Microsoft, and was told to prepare a more detailed presentation for the publisher’s headquarters.

The haptic-based controller opens the door to real-world applications, too. Provancher tells BBC that the military could use the device for unmanned vehicles and machines.

If it’s a robot that’s on the ground it could be information about obstacles in the environment, or if it was a drone aircraft flying over doing surveillance perhaps it’s processing the information and giving a cue to the remote pilot to focus their attention on something interesting.

The new controller is currently being shown off at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Haptics Symposium, and Provancher hopes to show it off at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

A New Direction for Game Controllers [University of Utah News Center] Thumb-stretching controller pitched to console makers [BBC]


  • Its interesting but i bet in-practicle for modern day controllers.

    If the top of the Thumbstick was thin Flexible Material to allow the Tactors to Glid long under your thumbs giving the sensation as well. As in the Article it was said “would I want little red tactors located on the centre of the controller’s joystick to awkwardly move my thumb skin around?” with the skin over tactors the thumbstick would look normal and it would be Rubbing Skin with the flexable Skin instead of Stretching skin as article says.
    But problem is woud you be still getting the same sensation if the Tactor isnt directly moving skin?

    • Some good points I would also be concerned with dirt and grime getting in between the mechanism.
      They could place a cap on top of it made of a thin hard plastic, you will still feel the effects and location.
      This needs to be tested further, a boot covering the stick like a gear shift is a good option to retain the design.

      This is something I would want to try out, it has numerous applications.
      A driving game could give you feedback on the gforce so you can feel when you are cornering too fast.
      A flight game could also give gforce feedback and closest bogey directions.
      A fighting game could guide you and teach you the stick movements, a further step is to have the buttons vibrate indicating which button to press.

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