Immersion Pinball

Immersion Pinball, which I designed in Immersion’s Advanced Research Lab, was presented at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Tech conference. Brainstorm Tech is an exclusive conference where many of the world’s technology leaders meet to discuss trends, share ideas, and preview upcoming products.

Immersion Pinball is a pinball game that demonstrates several new concepts in user experience. The devices used in the presentation, two multitouch tablets, were modified with advanced actuators made with piezo technology. Combining the capabilities of this new actuator with real-time feedback, multitouch sensing, and creative design, Immersion Pinball is what gaming could feel like in the near future.

Multiplayer touch feedback

The game environment is based on a hybrid of Pong and classic pinball. A steel metal ball bounces off of different game elements, each one made of a different virtual material. All of the virtual objects—walls, bumpers, vortex, and so on—are “haptified” (in other words, when the ball hits them, you feel it in your fingertips). The haptic feedback is “high definition” because the piezoelectric actuators enable vibration with high-bandwidth, variable frequency, and fast transient response. The chute in the top right corner of the screen feels like a hollow tube. The metal walls feel sharp and solid. When the ball goes up the xylophone in the top left corner of the screen, you hear and feel the pitch of every note. And the vortex feels like—well, it feels like a vortex!


In a multiplayer game, a ball is passed back and forth over a network between the tablets. Touch feedback is felt by both users at once, which creates the illusion that the tablets are somehow physically connected together. When you shoot the ball off of your screen and onto the other one, even though you can no longer see it, you can still feel it bouncing off the various objects in the game. The effect is similar to being in a building with thin walls and hearing and feeling someone’s footsteps in an adjacent room. You can’t tell exactly what they’re doing, but you are unmistakably aware of their presence.

Here’s a video of the presentation.


Computerworld published an article about this demo called “Haptics: The feel-good technology of the year”:

Immersion CTO Christophe Ramstein demonstrated today at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference a breathtaking new generation of haptic technologies he calls “high-fidelity haptics.”

Ramstein called a volunteer onto the stage and invited her to play a pinball game on a specially configured Hewlett-Packard tablet PC. She immediately responded to the haptics, and said that she could actually “feel a metal ball rolling on a hard surface.” She could feel all the motion of the game, the vibration of the whole machine and detailed, super-realistic but subtle tactile cues of the kind that you would feel with a real, physical pinball machine.

After playing for a minute or two, Ramstein threw a switch to turn off the haptics. The volunteer reported, essentially, that the game suddenly became cold and dead, even though all the graphics and sound were still in play.

Far beyond the one-dimensional buzzing of today’s haptics, the next-generation technology will be able to serve up thousands of different sensations, which will be immediately recognisable to people.

This new world of high-fidelity haptics will be able to convincingly create sensations associated with sound and also with the shape and texture of onscreen objects.

When interviewed, Ramstein said next-generation haptics will provide cues about what’s happening on screen. One application of this is simulating the feel of a real keyboard on a virtual, onscreen keyboard. Haptics can be employed to simulate the feeling of moving your finger from one key to the next, even before a key is pressed.

This is particularly important with touch-screen devices. When you use a touch device, such as the iPhone, your fingers cover and hide the objects you are trying to interact with. Haptics substitutes vision for physical sensation when seeing something isn’t easy or possible.

More importantly, however, high-fidelity haptics can bring an otherwise cold, flat screen to life. The technology can contribute to an emotional connection both between people communicating electronically, and between humans and machines.

Ramstein gave the example of an experimental device that enabled his wife to feel his heartbeat, even though he was in another city. He envisions a world of haptic devices that enable people to literally stay in “touch” with loved ones at all times, regardless of distance.

While Immersion’s next-generation high-fidelity haptics technology is in the prototype stage, it is almost certainly going to be baked right in to a breathtakingly wide range of consumer products over the next three years.

CNNMoney also wrote about Immersion Pinball in an article called “The Touchscreen Goes Ultratactile”:

At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, Immersion’s chief executive officer, Clent Richardson, and chief technology officer Christophe Ramstein, let me play with the company’s latest innovation: a two-player game prototype that offers touch feedback as a pinball moves between two computer screens.

The game did indeed feel like an old-school pinball machine. The tablet vibrated under my fingers, and there was a tangible change in pressure when the paddle made contact with the ball.

The Science Channel ran a special report on haptic technology. In the clip below, Immersion Pinball makes an appearance at 3’58.

Here’s Immersion’s press release about this.

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