Virtual Reality You Can Feel (w/ Greg Bilsland, HaptX)

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We're joined for a special interview with Greg Bilsland of HaptX to talk about VR for Commerce and how touch in VR isn't as elusive as you may believe. Impossible technology worth paying attention to now: how realistic haptics will add another dimension to our immersive experiences in retail and training.

What is HaptX?

  • Jake Rubin founded HaptX in 2012. HaptX's vision is for a full body system to deliver realistic touch to VR users.

  • The ultimate promise of virtual reality is to open up impossible worlds and experiences to you and experience them with unprecedented realism.

What is the specific definition of symbolic and realistic haptics?

  • It's the science and Technology of touch.

  • It's understanding how our body interacts with all the things around us.

  • Most people experience it in your phone, the touchpad in your mouse, or the rumble in a gaming controller.

  • Remember the Nintendo Rumble Pak? That was early haptics. That technology was an offset motor spinning around to create vibrational effect: that's symbolic haptics. It's only representing something happening in an abstract way.

  • Realistic haptics delivers the actual sense of displacement on your skin when you touch something.

  • Tactile feedback: Imagine putting your finger against the tines of a fork and you see all those points that are physically displacing on your finger. That's where you're actually feeling those points.

  • Force feedback: imagine trying to bend a spoon: you're pushing on it and feeling resistance.

  • Combine those two things and you get realistic haptics. A sense that you're touching a real object even though you're in the virtual world.

This seems like far future technology, but you're talking about it as current technology. Where do the technologies come from and what are its current and practical uses?

  • Jake Rubin found that you could leverage the current game engine tech, Unity and Unreal, to bring touch to them.

  • It turns out is has huge implications across commerce and retail and training.

  • Imagine flight simulators taking VR and using haptic gloves to utilize training for pilots.

  • Any professional role that needs training can utilize haptics in VR.

What is the broad industry specific use of this tech? Is there anything currently existing? How do you see haptics being applied in the consumer space?

  • Long term, haptic devices are going to make their way into the consumer space because VR will be part of retail experience.

  • Short term, It's more of an enterprise tool.

  • Companies doing commerce that benefit the most from haptic: a large physical space where consumers do their shopping or a large physical space they have to store something.

  • Consider companies like Lowes and Home Depot. They have huge stores that are expensive to lease and keep tstocked.

  • They're looking to VR to reduce that footprint so that their customers can have the whole store experience brought to them in a small package.

  • Ikea is doing the same thing.

  • You'll see more consumers using VR and haptics when at locations that can install VR and haptics.

What's your endgame goal for seeing retail applying haptics?

  • The long term vision is doing things and navigating immersive environments using your hands instead of using controller. We're a long way off before the price point makes that a feasible scenario.

Can you tell us the price point? Do you have a new product?

  • HaptX gloves: we have the first haptic glove to deliver realistic feedback all in one package.

  • We're sharing that at Sundance in a few weeks.

  • It's the first hardware product to debut at Sundance since Oculus. We're only selling a LImited amount of these products to strategic investors and companies.

Will you see your product initially showcased by different companies showing off their tech to customers?

  • Experience centers will be initial major way for consumers to interact with this technology.

  • You might see them at VR arcades at places like malls or experiential centers.

  • Entertainment will be a space for consumers to use haptic experiences.

  • Branded experiences: the brands doing VR right are companies like Disney partnering with Nissan to do a Star Wars experience.

  • To be successful, they create a real sense of value among the consumer. They're delivering utility to customers.

Future Policy with Danny Sepulveda

  • President Trump's proposal is to close the borders to competition and do something on the tax side to put more money in people's pockets. And he's executed on that.

  • Two relevant books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

  • JD Vance theoretically explains the destruction of the low wage white Appalachian culture.

  • Coate's book is about what it means, and what it takes, to grow up black in America.

  • The reason these issues are important is because the policy decisions we make occur within not just economics and commerce, they occur within the four corners of law, human ingenuity, and regulation.

  • How we react to how commerce is changing fundamentally affects the manner in which human beings live within their communities, govern themselves, and view themselves.

  • As we look to struggling communities, like the ones described by Coates and Vance, we see centers of production, wealth, and commerce concentrating in specific places and the rest of the country living of off it.

  • It's unsustainable because of what it means to the American promise that birth is not destined.

  • Once social mobility is restricted we lose the american promise.

  • That is the fundamental problem.

  • The concentration of power, wealth, and authority will be central to our conversations going forward and what that means for people's everyday lives.

Could you address any critics that say your technology only further isolates people from having real world experiences?

  • Haptics ultimately have the ability to bridge distance and bring touch to what would normally be an isolating experience.

  • Consider using Skype to give your parents a hug or hold their hand while you're talking to them. The isolation criticism has always been there going back to the argument that TV would rot our brains.

  • But It depends on the content makers and their users to discipline themselves to how they use that technology.

  • Brian says that the more realistic we can make them and mimic the real world, the closer to a real world experience will enhance that connectedness.

Touch is something we've been missing from media. How do you foresee CMOs and marketers building out branding experiences with this?

  • VR is still a novelty for a lot of consumers and so brands will try to use experiences to wow their consumers to create a really strong brand impression.

  • Eventually consumers will become savvy enought to recognize the good from the bad VR experiences.

  • That's when marketers are going to want a deeper level of immersion to create a competitive edge over their competitors.

  • Imagine going to REI and be able to try on gear and ascend Mt Rainier. It's easy to see how immersion helps sell the experience.

So how much can you feel? Can feel something slimy? Can you feel weight? Texture?

  • Slimy and textures are challenging simply because they're a function of vibration.

  • When you run your hand over something, the sensation is actually your hand vibrating at various frequencies.

  • That's something we're working on to get the actuator technology.

  • Actuators are little bubbles that inflate and deflate that create the sensation of texture.

  • Slime is a little ways off.

  • But running your hands over wheat, or a rocky surface, or even over a wall is something we can do really well.

  • Weight is an interesting challenge: to feel something truly weighty, you need a full body exoskeleton to apply the downward pressure on your arm.

Are you heading toward full body suits?

  • Our original vision was to create full body suits, and that remains a goal, but our expertise is in touch.

  • We're really good at translating the digital into tactile experience.

  • Other companies doing really awesome exoskeleton systems.

  • Long term training, if you want to give them a true fully immersive experience, that's where we'd probably partner with a company who could do the exoskeleton type experiences to create the "climb eht mountain" experience.

Does haptics add to presence illusion?

  • There's a lot of progress to be made.

  • While we've been able to simulate touch better than any other company, it's going to take time to continue to progress.

  • Example: when black and white TV first came out, it was amazing. Then color arrived and black and white was no longer interesting. Same with HD television, our standards increase.

  • The goal posts are always moving.

  • We're always going to try to move with the advancements in the field.

VR is still a novel experience

Retailers are starting to understand that certain tech can only be utilized and work in certain mediums. Are you enabling experiences and interfaces that couldn't already be realized?

  • We want to create areas where you are able to use your hands in an immersive environment to interact with 3D objects in a way that feels intuitive.

Have you explored the medical community as well?

  • We've had a number of universities and medical communities reach out to us, especially in the training field.

  • Imagine how much more comfortable you'd feel going into an operation that a doctor has already performed on you with VR and realistic haptics?

What's the use case for Augmented Reality and HaptX?

  • Haptics and AR are compatible but it's a much bigger technical challenge due to the way that most AR hardware works.

  • AR uses a kind of inside out tracking, taking a lot of snapshots of the environment and using complicated math to tell the relative position of the device so an object can remain locked in the virtual environment.

  • Where that gets tricky is that haptics requires a really high level of precision to be able to deliver a realistic experience.

  • If you're going to reach out your hand and poke a button, you need that button to push back against you at precisely where you see that button, otherwise it's going to feel wrong.

  • You need submillimeter accuracy to make that work.

  • AR isn't there yet with the tech. Until we hear more from customers demanding haptics from AR its not something that we're going to focus on.

Any advice to our merchant listeners about when they should be investing in this?

Is there anything we should be doing in this coming year? Anything about VR? What should we avoid? What about next 5 years? What should we be prepared for?

  • VR is still a novelty for most consumers so merchants can rely on that to create experiences that are memorable.

  • Adoption curve for VR that's more like the 90s cell phone market. I don't think in 5 years we're going to turn around and see 90% of Americans owning VR headsets.

  • It always comes down to thinking about your business and how you're solving your consumers' problems. If you're in the travel industry: give them a 360 or VR experience to help solve your customers problems. But that's not going to be true of every industry.

  • The branded AR and VR experiences are going to have a real long tail for brands and merchants who invest in delivering utility and value to their customers.

  • The 5 year outlook is thinking about how VR and Haptics are going to apply to how you're going to train your workforce and how you're designing products.

  • How you're using the new tools of VR and Haptics to build prototypes.

  • Look at what the big companies are doing and if they're not investing in AR and VR then it might not be time to make those investments yet.

  • If you're interested in VR now, then you're ahead of the curve.

  • Immersive and wearable computing is going to be the next wave of technological adoption. It's worth paying attention to even if it doesn't match your business right now.

Thanks, Greg Bilsland. Go check out HaptX.com for more information on this new technology.

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