What Does Future Hold for Haptic Technology?

Bob Preston
LOS ANGELES — Is haptic technology worth the hype?

But wait — what does “haptic” mean, anyway? Gaming enthusiasts will be familiar with a basic form of haptic tech: rumble packs in video-game controllers. Haptic tech is anything that adds the sense of touch to an interactive experience.

Some of the earliest uses of haptic tech happened inside old-school airplane simulators. Pilots would feel wind shear, resistance and other stressors through their controls.

It was just a matter of time before the adult industry found a use for it. In the case of AEBN’s Real Touch device, it was lots and lots of time. AEBN founder and CEO Scott Coffman called upon no less than a NASA engineer to help design the gizmo, the first of its kind to hit the market.

"The adult industry is like a lot of industries – it's first to market," he said, adding that the decision to build a haptic device sprang from a realization that as of now, the sense of sight is tapped out — it’s time to explore the other senses.

“The picture isn’t going to get much better,” he told XBIZ. “HD is HD.”

Coffman drew parallel between the adult and gaming industries because both businesses thrive on giving consumers more and better ways to interact with entertainment. He cited Nintendo’s Wii video game system as a major inspiration.

“What the Wii did to gaming, I think the Real Touch is going to do to the adult industry,” he said, praising the Wii’s commitment to developing games that involve the sense of touch.

"Right now, most people experience movies through hearing and seeing – they use two senses," he said. "And what we wanted to do was bring the next sense to the equation, which was the sense of touch."

And that's where all the time came in. Coffman ordered his team not only to build the Real Touch, but to make it work in tandem with actual adult titles, so if a user is watching a movie on AEBN with the Real Touch, the device will work its magic in tune with the action onscreen.

That process doesn't happen automatically. AEBN employees have to encode each video manually to get it to work properly with the device. AEBN’s Jim McAnally said that every 15 minutes of video takes eight hours to encode.

“It’s very time-intensive for our encoding team because we program frame by frame, every second of detail,” he said.

The device can plug into any USB port and is packed with goodies. Inside are two heaters that bring the device up to body temperature during playtime, as well as a powerful suction mechanism and a variety of padded wheels designed to pleasure the penis. Users also don't have to worry about stopping and starting the device to lube it up — a reservoir delivers the slick stuff at appropriate times. For example, if a woman climaxes onscreen, the user gets more lube.

AEBN is catering to both straight and gay audiences with the device, which works with content featuring stars like Ashlynn Brooke, Jenna Haze, Sasha Grey, Jada Fire, Linda Lovelace, Gianna Michaels and Amy Fisher. On the gay side, fans can use the device with titles from Titan, Raging Stallion, Treasure Island, Falcon, SX Video and Prodigy Pictures. It costs $149.95.

Industry luminary Greg Piccionelli worked for five years to bring haptic technology to the industry. The industry lawyer and free-speech advocate said that content piracy is an inescapable reality, and that one solution to it is to give consumers an offer they can't refuse.

"The business model myself and others have suggested can be best described as simply pairing piratable content with non-piratable or less easily piratable goods or services that can be profitably sold," he said. "Put another way, the model utilizes either free content or the fact that a potential consumer will obtain the content for free — by stealing it, for example — as the means of affecting a profitable sale of another good or service."

The reaction to the Real Touch has been mostly positive so far. CNET News featured the device in its report of this year's CES, while leading sex blog Fleshbot.com plugged it as well.

"Holy shit, they've finally made a robopussy," said Fleshbot staff writer Lux Alptraum.

The device has also been the butt of a few jokes, including one from leading tech blog CrunchGear.com, which criticized the device's large size and resemblance to a giant peanut.

"[It looks] like you’re violating Mr. Peanut," said tech pundit John Biggs.

But AEBN isn't the only company trying to being haptic fun to the masses. Largely mainstream company Immersion delivers the responsive tech to medical professionals and other non-adult entities, but the company got embroiled in a legal battle that ensnared Piccionelli.

The row started last summer when Immersion sued entertainment giant Sony for patent infringement — specifically, Sony's rumbling game controllers. That's when the adult industry got involved and turned the two-way fight into a three-way brawl.

The third company, called Internet Services, claimed that they had a licensing deal with Immersion to add haptic technology to adult websites and steamy video games. Internet Services said that part of this licensing deal included the right to enforce Immersion's patents.

Internet Services retained the high-profile San Francisco law firm Keker & Van Nest for the case. That was back in 2004. Since the beginning of this year, Keker had been trying to get out of the case, citing a conflict with industry Piccionelli, who worked with Internet Services to bring haptic technology to the industry.

Online reports show that Immersion's lawyers wanted to depose him. That deposition never happened, apparently because Piccionelli never agreed to be represented by Keker & Van Nest, and Immersion's lawyers never properly served him with a subpoena.

Keker managed to get free of the case in June, and Internet Services has since found new counsel.

Clearly, haptic technology holds promise for the industry, but what's the next step? Happily, there are lots of steps to take and many paths to choose from.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo are working on an ultrasound device that can make the air vibrate in such a way that it creates touchable, invisible, floating objects. Right now, the scientists can only create simple objects, but they're predicting the ability to simulate more complicated textures and shapes.

Another fascinating device in the conceptual stages is a keyboard for the visually impaired that its creators call ZEN, for "z-axis enabled." It works like this: Imagine a plate of liquid metal that could assume any shape. It could become a qwerty keyboard, a piano or a xylophone. Its designers intend it for the visually impaired — if successful, it could easily deliver Braille text — but its adult applications are intriguing.

Last month, Phillips Electronics rolled out a prototype for a haptic jacket. The device comes packed with 64 stimulators distributed across the arms and torso. Researcher Paul Lemmens worked on the jacket, which he said could conceivably simulate punches and blows from a fighting game, but which he hopes will be used to help simulate emotional experience in movies.

"[One use would be to cause] a shiver to go up the viewer’s spine and create the feeling of tension in the limbs,’” he said.

For more information on AEBN's Real Touch, visit RealTouch.com.