Play is becoming more and more complicated. Depending on what generation you grew up in, fun can be had in a controller, a kite, a stick and ball, or your own two legs. This generation, or perhaps the one after this, will need to get used to another accessory – the full body haptic suit.
Although still unavailable commercially, the “Teslasuit” has already gone through one crowdfunding attempt through Kickstarter which was cancelled last January. There is little activity in its Facebook and Twitter accounts at the moment, but there is certainly an actual product already out and being demonstrated, the latest of which was at BBC World News last June. The Kickstarter page is also still up and full of juicy details on the product, even a projected timeline of production and availability.
Availability notwithstanding, the existence of this VR-centric product is another feather in the cap for VR technology as a whole, one that is pushing VR immersion to another level – after all, immersion is the name of the game for VR’s uniqueness as an entertainment and cutting edge medium.
The Teslasuit is a whole-body suit made of “smart fabric” consisting of conductive thread reinforced by a neoprene outer shell, and integrated electro-haptic units that can be controlled and made to correspond with the visual experience one gets from a VR headset. In other words, it gives the virtual version of touch to the whole body – it helps you touch and feel objects inside a virtual world. This is done using neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) – commonly used in athletic training and rehabilitation. The electrical signals from these units are very mild and mimic the “natural language” – probably meaning the electrical nerve signals used by the body – similar to Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation devices used for nerve simulation.
Teslasuit has demonstrated the suit’s capabilities with the first ever haptic-enabled VR game – VR Digital Paintball Game. It is also preparing for full availability with multiple versions of its suit – The Prodigy and the Pioneer have 52 and 16 “channels” of haptic feedback respectively, and jackets and trousers are available separately. Tesla is also aiming to release a software development kit (SDK) with the product for developers – this includes a haptic editor, haptic player library, a haptic engine library, and a notification system.
This is an accessory that’s badly needed in the VR ecosystem; as fast as kickstarter and other crowdfunding programs are, a lot of kinks are left for ironing out, notably pricing. The Pioneer will eventually retail for around $1800, while the Prodigy will be available for an eye-widening $3150. Tesla hopes to pull down costs once mass production starts up, and I hope the best for them, and for VR enthusiasts – this is too good a product in concept to leave alone, even with the added complexity of gearing up before each play session. Complicated play is still play after all.