Digital Turns Physical: AR, Haptic, Users Touch Cyberspace

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology have been getting a lot of hype over the past few years.

This may be in light of Pokemon Go’s AR features and the introduction of the first VR headsets. Currently, though, these tools remain on the margins as companies work to identify the most appropriate applications.

One technological innovation that is enhancing the marketplace value of AR and VR is haptics, or technology oriented around touch – and such natural user interface tools are on trend for 2018. Whether it’s gesture recognition interfaces or VR environments that respond to touch, haptics enhance engagement, accessibility, and emotional resonance of virtual experiences, and that’s important if AR and VR are ever to gain real marketplace traction.

When AR, VR, and haptics collide, the results are innovative, marketable, and simply exciting – but what exactly are companies doing with this new tech? With greater insights into how end users respond to AR and VR tools, we’re encountering new modes of interaction, whether for marketing, shopping, or just connecting with friends and family.

Interventions In Ecommerce.

When given the opportunity to implement new technology, there’s always a significant market segment that wants to know how it will shape ecommerce, and that is unsurprisingly true of AR, VR, and haptics. Taken up with the goal of reinventing the mobile economy so that it is more trustworthy and convenient and offers a greater depth of engagement, new technology is shaping both the marketing and sales aspects of ecommerce.

One reason AR and VR are so popular with marketers is that they’ve been shown to foster empathy and emotional engagement. In fact, research has shown that they may actually be more engaging than television programs and commercials. If this fact bears out, then marketers need to shift their spending significantly to emphasize mobile AR and VR options. A high level of use by major brands on the marketing side could do more to drive adoption than marketing of AR- and VR-oriented devices themselves.

Obsess And Youvisit: AR In Action For Ecommerce.

It’s one thing to say that AR and VR are going to change how we shop or how we experience marketing, but what does it look like when we actually apply this technology? With VR still being expensive, most companies are turning to AR as they test the waters, though there have been limited VR rollouts. Supporting these new experiences are platforms by Obsess and Youvisit, among others.

This technology can provide immersive shopping.

  Applied in place, AR and VR ecommerce technology provides for an immersive shopping experience without all of the normal “stuff” of shopping. This is especially valuable for items like bedding and houseware that take up a lot of space; without it, many shops wouldn’t be able to offer these products or would need to eliminate a great number of other displays in order to make room. In fact, this is precisely the reason that Vera Bradley has begun offering a VR experience – the brand has a new bedding line that just doesn’t always fit in stores.

How does it work? In the case of Vera Bradley, the company worked with Obsess to design a VR app for use in-store or at home. While using the program, shoppers can look at the bedding from different angles, in different color combinations, and pull up information on the products. Similarly, Mastercard and Swarovski partnered with Youvisit to develop an equivalent Swarovski home décor experience.

All that’s left, of course, is the haptic element; users can’t yet virtually touch the products as they peruse them in VR or AR settings and for some this will be a serious barrier to purchase. Businesses adopting these tools should consider whether offering fabric swatches or the equivalent for virtual products could further the experience for shoppers using the tools in-house.

Gaming, Engagement, And The Element Of Fun.

While ecommerce always leaves its prints on new technology, one of the great advantages of AR, VR, and haptics is that they really lend themselves to gaming. This is evidenced in Pokemon Go, one of the first places that a lot of gamers encountered AR technology.

In fact, Pokemon Go’s most recent update, about 18 months out from its initial release, has updated to what it terms “AR+” wherein not only can players interact with Pokemon in their surroundings, but the Pokemon will have a kind of reciprocal awareness, responding to the player’s actions. This, coupled with the haptic element of throwing the Pokeball, make for a new kind of gaming experience that’s now exploding into other platforms, settings, and franchises – large and small.

Not all AR draws on haptics.

Of course, not all AR draws on haptics or vice versa, so when app and game designers are working on new programs, the main goal is to determine how any given interaction feels. AR, for example, works well because it doesn’t try too hard to be immersive. On the other hand, VR – in its attempt to provide a total experience – requires users to strap on a clunky headset, and that alone can be enough to diminish their enthusiasm for the experience.

Similar rules apply to haptics. Haptic engagement is just immersive enough, allowing users to throw or push or otherwise simply manipulate an object. In The Saber Team’s Chanukah App, for example, users can actually “spin” the dreidel on their phone screen. The action is uniquely engaging, especially for young users, and its digital nature offers a particular selling point. As the Chanukah app designer Shmuel Aber explains, “The ability to physically interact with the dreidel through a device encourages children to play this traditional game and share their culture with friends.” The haptic element, then, opens doors on emotional and social levels that pushing a button doesn’t.

What’s Next In AR, VR, And Haptics?

VR and laser projection technologies are beginning to replace methods for manufacturers. Clearly, AR, VR, and haptics are all on the verge of something big, but what’s next for these burgeoning technologies? Ultimately, so much of their growth hinges on improvements in smart phone technology, including gesture recognition and pressure sensitivity.

For many users, haptic technology as we think about it today hinges on Apple’s Taptic Engine, the complex interface that makes Apple devices “click” in time with user motion. The carefully honed technology makes it feel almost as though users are depressing a button when they’re just touching a fixed screen. This is no longer big news, but an expectation, and other brands are trying to compete; that’s what we can see happening in the Galaxy S8 and LG V30, devices that are introducing pressure sensitivity to the mobile haptics framework.

These devices aren’t alone in introducing more advanced haptics technology, and in many ways, they’re just playing catch-up. The German start-up Lofelt, on the other hand, is working on what’s they’re calling “next-gen” haptics and, as the company phrases it, the whole premise is about “creat[ing] a natural connection between people and their digital devices.” Again, connection is at the heart of these technologies – but for Lofelt the goal is to bring these features to other gaming platforms, movies, and more.

How far is Lofelt taking these haptics innovations?

Consider their proposal to use tactile signals in automobiles, preventing drivers from the need to rely on visual cues when driving and sustaining their focus. Or, their most well-known product, the Basslet – basically a soundless subwoofer worn on the wrist with headphones to enhance sound perception and experience. Pushing beyond the traditional confines of gaming, Lofelt could be the future face of AR, VR, and haptics-based innovation.

Creating actual sensation. 

Ultimately, the Basslet suggest something very important about the current state of innovation and that’s the fact that haptics as virtual touch or touch-responsiveness just isn’t enough. Users are looking for devices that actually create the real sensation, or a closer facsimile, and nothing in the VR or AR world can do that yet. Those VR products that advertise a touch element do so in the same clunky way they provide visual input: by requiring users to strap on a clunky piece of technology, as seen with the Go Touch VR system. It allows for screenless interaction, but not for the sort of sensory feedback of texture or shape that real objects provide, and that may not be possible.

Based on available technology and human physiology, try as they might, startups and major tech companies may both end up against a wall, able to provide something like “smell-a-vision” before they master haptics at their most meaningful. And that’s okay – but it’s not the promise of today’s technology. Users still think that VR shopping should let them touch the fabrics, not just see the blankets, or that haptic gaming should let them feel the cold metal of a sword or the lock on a treasure chest. And they can’t.

What AR, VR, and haptics can do, though, is create a new kind of interaction and connection. AR, for example, is gaining traction in communications technologies because, sans VR goggles, users feel as though they’re really present with the person they’re talking to.

The novelty of “first-gen” haptics hasn’t worn off yet;

we still feel like there’s something bigger going on when we interact through touch. It’s when we move on to that “next-gen” framework, ala Lofelt, that tech’s language could dangerously surpass user’s experience of it, and where those same companies should practice an abundance of caution and instead enjoy this new moment.