Why virtual reality still lacks the personal touch
Two weeks ago, I met two different Steves on two consecutive days.
Tuesday was Steve Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple and the guy who personally designed the company’s early computers, right down to the circuit boards. Wednesday was Steven Domenikos, the cofounder of Tactai, a tiny Waltham startup that has raised about $2 million to try to introduce a sense of touch into digital interactions — like feeling a silk dress or snakeskin boot as you shop for clothing online.
Woz, as the first Steve is known, gave props in our conversation to a piece of software built here in Boston for helping turn Apple’s early machines into a need-to-have item, rather than a nifty gadget. The software was VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet application, which gave small businesses a reason to buy personal computers. Woz said he and cofounder Steve Jobs had thought people might use the Apple to balance their checkbooks, or build a collection of recipes. “We were so wrong,” Woz said. “If that’s what this business was about, it never would’ve happened.” Today, Apple has a stock market value of more than $600 billion.
The second Steve, Domenikos, has a cool technology demo. At a Harvard conference on virtual reality and augmented reality at the end of last month, it drew several hundred people, who waited patiently to don a virtual reality headset and be able to “touch” digital objects with their index finger. But Domenikos is still in search of his VisiCalc: a reason for people to buy his product.
It’s the question that is the difference between building a company worth billions of dollars and wandering in the wilderness. Technology to let our fingers feel something in the digital realm — rather than just banging on a keyboard or clicking a mouse — has consumed millions of dollars of investment without breaking through to the mainstream. In 2000, there was a press release from Immersion Corp. announcing a patent that would imminently add “a sense of touch to the web.” Seven years before that, a startup in Cambridge, SensAble Technologies, began designing a device that would let designers sculpt a digital object with a stylus connected to a PC, feeling the pliability of soft clay.
That sort of worked, but most people outside of the design world have probably never used SensAble’s product, which still costs more than $3,000. For consumers, touch-enabled computers are perennially “two or three years away — no matter what year it is,” says Bill Aulet, the former president of SensAble.
Creating a synthetic tactile experience, Aulet explains, “is a much harder problem than people know.”
Domenikos started Tactai in 2014. He says he became interested in the field of touch (sometimes called haptics) after observing the way his son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, sometimes related to the world by touching things. “He liked to touch my hand, and I wondered if there was a way for him to touch my hand when I was traveling,” Domenikos says.
With money he made when an earlier startup was acquired, he bankrolled a research group at the University of Pennsylvania that built what you might call a rudimentary “touch telegraph.” A device on a fingertip could scan a texture, digitize it, and then relay it to a playback device that could be anywhere in the world. The playback device used a rubber belt device that could vibrate, and run at different speeds, to try to recreate the original texture.
The demos Tactai was showing at the conference were different — more about simulating than transmitting touch. A small device similar to a pulse-oxygen monitor you’d wear at the hospital was fitted onto your index finger. It used small motors to move pads that were in contact with your fingertip to create the illusion of texture. After putting on a pair of virtual reality goggles, you could touch the smooth surface of an egg or a dinosaur’s rough skin. You could feel the edges of a wooden crate or press the surface of a paper sack of flour and feel it deform a bit.
It’s not quite at the level of subtlety that would let you tell the difference between petting a digital cat and a digital cow. But one thing that’s nice about combining virtual reality with Tactai’s prototype is that ordinarily, in virtual worlds, your hand simply goes through objects. With Tactai, you feel the faux resistance of the object’s surface, and your brain tells your hand to stop, rather than passing through it like a wraith.
Domenikos, not surprisingly, is jazzed about continuing to upgrade the Tactai device so it can do even more — like simulate hot and cold objects, or let you use your hand to pick up and move virtual objects. He’s aiming for a price around $50.
Is there some “killer app” that might finally pull virtual touch into the mainstream? Domenikos says the company has been talking to educational publishers and theme parks. Feeling surfaces could be useful to a doctor controlling a surgical robot. And being able to use your sense of touch could persuade you to purchase more stuff online; the person who initially told me about Tactai works at Wayfair, the Boston-based online furniture retailer. Would you skip the real-world showroom if you could feel the surface of a leather armchair on their site?
“The obvious two applications for a device like this — pornography and gaming — have problems,” says Aulet, the former SensAble executive, who now heads the entrepreneurship center at MIT. “Pornography has social acceptability questions, and for gaming, the price has to be low, which makes the profit margins very thin.”
Domenikos, for his part, says he’s not too interested in using touch to simulate “intimate activities” but says the company’s business plan involves licensing the design of the TactaiTouch device to companies that want to build its capabilities into different consumer electronics products, and then selling software to content creators who want to “touch enable” their content. So you might be able to both, uh, caress the curves of a virtual paramour and/or run your fingers over a digital copy of the Rosetta Stone in a school library, depending on what Tactai’s customers decide to do with it.
As Woz pointed out to me, Apple needed others to create hit software that turned its early computers into a justifiable purchase. Tactai needs to hope for something similar to happen — whether through luck, or hard work, or a combination of the two.
Correction: An earlier version of this column gave the wrong time frame for interviews with Steve Wozniak and Steven Domenikos, and Domenikos’s product demo at a Harvard conference.