In The Beginning…
The story of OmniWear Haptics starts with football. As sports fans know all too well, concussions have become a scandal in the NFL, maybe even an existential threat to the game. Earlier this year, a settlement was reached between the NFL and a group of players suffering from neurological conditions that may have been caused by their years playing football. Initially, the NFL agreed to pay up to $675 million to players with diagnosable neurological conditions, but later this limit was later removed and now there is no cap on damages the League might have to pay. Despite ample research and a mass of high-quality data, we’ve yet to see a truly effective means of preventing concussions in football other than, well…not playing football.
We came into the picture in April 2014, when we were approached to brainstorm some innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas for solving this problem. We gathered a number of experts in the field, from neurologists to NFL officials to sports kinesthesiologists to tackle this mandate. The ideas ranged from the fanciful (airbags that extend out from a helmet to cushion an oncoming blow) to the more practical (cervical spine support that deployed only when needed) to the just plain weird (a helmet that induces hypothermia upon impact).
One idea, however, seemed to resonate more than the rest: giving players advance warning of a impending hit. The inspiration, oddly enough, was Spiderman. Spiderman is endowed, naturally, with a number of superhuman powers, one of which is the ability to detect impending danger. This “Spidey Sense” allows Spiderman to dodge attacks, navigate when disoriented, and even find hidden objects. It is manifested by a tingling feeling at the base of his skull. Now, why can’t we give Spidey Sense to people in real life? Research shows that if a player tenses his neck muscles before the impact, the acceleration/deceleration on his brain is lessened, which should correspondingly lessen the severity of concussions. The problem is that players’ eyes and ears are already fully engaged in actually playing the game, and are also severely compromised by the helmet itself. So a visual or auditory warning probably wouldn’t work. But what if we used their sense of touch…
We embarked on a limited study of this particular concept and, in doing so, became more and more enamored with idea: tactile signals can be used to augment your awareness of what’s going on around you in a way that’s not otherwise distracting. With a bit of training, these should become intuitive, almost like a sixth sense. As we contemplated this idea further, we became excited about the wide number of areas where just such a sense would be valuable: aviation, motorcycle and bicycle blind-spot monitoring, workplace safety (especially in noisy or sight-restricted environments), coordinating the movements of a sports team during training, squad-level combat operations, and of course gaming.
As we studied the subject, we became convinced that tactile feedback opens up an entirely new channel for communications. Most of the haptic technologies in the market now are based on simulating what you would feel in the real world (think force-feedback or vibration motors in game controllers), but what about using the same haptic hardware as a way of conveying interesting information? Moreover, what if the device that conveys this tactile information is essentially a comfortable garment, such that you essentially just forget it’s there? It would be like having a sixth sense! Yes, it would be just like having Spidey-Sense…
After some thinking along these lines, we concluded that this idea was clearly worth seriously investigating, and we built a series of prototypes to test the concept. We decided to go with the head, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later, and tested a number of configurations of the haptic actuators. At first we built a cap with 35 vibrating motors glued into it. This created an…interesting sensation, a bit like having a hive of bees living in your hair, but it wasn’t quite what we were looking for. We experimented with dozens of designs, from hard hats to swim caps to cycling skullcaps. These experiments eventually settled on the current design, which uses just thirteen actuators arranged in concentric circles around the cap.
On the software side, we chose two open-source first-person shooter games to integrate: AssaultCube and Xonotic. These were fun, fairly modern, and because they were open source, offered us the best shot of getting something working quickly to iterate our design. As time went on, we implemented a growing number of haptic modes – most of these centered around situational awareness: augmenting the player’s sense of what’s around him in the virtual environment. This could be enemy players, teammates, interesting items, or traps. Without needing to look at a map, you gain an intuition about where things are around you. We continued with hit-detection that indicates where you’re being shot from, health warnings, and wall detection (this last feature is really aimed at fully-occluded head-mounted displays).
Ultimately, we were seeking something simple, cheap, comfortable, yet effective that we could get to market as quickly as possible, since our learning would be greatly accelerated as soon as we put these into the hands of clever developers. Although our focus has been on gaming, we view the device as a general-purpose interface for use in numerous settings. Having such a device gives developers a canvas to use for communicating with their users in entirely new ways.
That’s really the genesis of the haptic cap – our vision is that this technology will someday be incorporated into many products where people need a gentle, intuitive, non-obtrusive way of getting information about what’s going on around them, as well as being a stand-alone human-computer interface.