Interview: William Provancher, creator of Reactive Grip motion controller
It has been a while since we acquainted you with Reactive Grip, a motion controller with tactile feedback for playing RPG games with swords or knifes. Since then a lot of improvements have been made to the Reactive Grip since it was first revealed at Game Developer Conference (GDC) 2013 and now it is all set to hit Kickstarter soon (by the end of October). It is lighter and slimmer with the addition of ergonomically integrated trigger, thumbstick and buttons. The feedback of this motion controller has got even better and it is compatible with Sixense STEM tracking system with mounting options for trackers such as Razer Hydra. The controller is 7.25 inches (19 cm) as compared to the 11 inch (28 cm) height of the previous Reactive Grip. So, it was high time we got a personal one-on-one view of what William Provancher has to say about this cool technology and the subsequent product created using it. We got the chance to get an exclusive interview with William Provancher, Associate Professor at University of Utah and the creator of Reactive Grip from Tactical Haptics, and here is how it went.
DamnGeeky: How did the idea of developing Reactive Grip controller come to your mind?
William Provancher: I had been conducting research on new tactile feedback devices in my lab at the University of Utah that was supported by the US National Science Foundation for about 5 years. This research was initially just focused on understanding human touch perception, but we also started building our touch feedback devices into other devices, such as joysticks, media player interfaces (e.g., which could be used in an iPod), steering wheels, and game controllers. Because it appeared to me that there may be some commercial potential for this technology I started looking around for ways to get this technology out of the lab and into real products.
At that point (starting a year or two ago), I started giving demos at companies such as Microsoft, Immersion, Synaptics, Sony Playstation, Valve, etc. However, aside from seeing the potential of our technology, there wasn’t enough interest in going forward. It was clear that we needed to have more than a technology, we needed to understand who our customer would be and make a product that they would love. Around this same time, the US National Science foundation started a new commercialization program called I-Corps, which is short for Innovation Corps.
I participated in a US National Science Foundation program called I-Corps, which is meant for helping PI’s of prior NSF research understand the commercial potential of their research. A big part of the I-Corps program is the “customer discovery” process, where we discovered that the people we were talking to were very into the “experiences” we could create in virtual environment with our haptic devices.
DamnGeeky: How do you think your haptic motion controller is different from Sixense?
William Provancher: Our controllers are different because the ones you mention at most have vibration feedback. The Reactive Grip feedback in our controllers is capable of creating powerful force-torque-like haptic illusions (haptics is to the study of touch as optics is to the study of sight/vision).
DamnGeeky: Have you deployed 3D printing technology in making of your controller?
William Provancher: Yes, we’ve used 3D printing in our current controller prototypes
DamnGeeky: Don’t you think like other motion controllers; Sony Move or Wiimote, your controller would have chances of slipping out of hand after a day-long gaming session due to sweaty palms?
William Provancher: Yes, this is possible, but unlike those devices, there is a portion of the controller that curves around the front of the controller that would prevent the hand from sliding off the end of the controller.
DamnGeeky: Any plans to refine controller design or size?
William Provancher: Yes, please see our website. The height of the new controller is approximately 7.25 inches (19 cm) as compared to the 11 inch (28 cm) height of the previous orange controller design that we showed at GDC 2013 in March (65% of the old height). The new device is also about half the weight of the older controller.
DamnGeeky: Any plans to make it a wireless device?
William Provancher: The plan is to make the device wireless for the consumer version. The developer kits on Kickstarter will likely have both wired power and communication.
DamnGeeky: Talking about design or ergonomics, has your haptic motion controller taken a cue from shape and placement of buttons of Sixense’s new wireless controller?
William Provancher: No, we have decided to build on the layout of buttons on the Razer Hydra, but with improved ergonomics. We felt that we could build a lower cost design with better ergonomics than the Sixense STEM controller design by following the Hydra button configuration.
DamnGeeky: The technology exploited is certainly high-end; will this device be functional for any industrial purpose also?
William Provancher: Yes, there are great industrial and high-end applications, such as to enhance the touch feedback of a surgeon using a minimally invasive or robotic surgical system, or could be a more compelling interface for upper limb rehabilitation.
We also see our tech as a good match with VR interfaces such as zSpace or AR interfaces such as the CastAR system.
It could also be part of a system to guide a blind person (giving them cues to turn right or left or go forward…).
DamnGeeky: Do you have anything to say about major consoles and developers pledging support for your concept?
William Provancher: Not a lot. I wish they would. I’ve given demos to people at all 3 console makers, but my sense is that they are looking for me to show that I can produce the technology in a viable product, show that there is demand, and show that developers will consider developing new games in order to derisk my technology commercially. This is the reason that I’m looking to get our Reactive Grip controllers out to developers and researchers, to create a developer community and some ground swell to push the technology forward.
DamnGeeky: Motion controllers won’t beat out a regular game controller, do you agree?
William Provancher: I’m not sure that I agree, but our goal isn’t to beat a conventional game controller based on performance. While we seek to maintain the same performance as a conventional game controller, our goal is to create a richer, more engaging gaming experience.
DamnGeeky: Would a Haptic Grip user be positively or negatively motivated to use real weapons?
William Provancher: I don’t see this as question that I am qualified to answer.
I would think that video games would be a great way to relax and that if people have the tendencies to be violent that perhaps video games might reduce these urges, but I’m not a psychologist.
DamnGeeky: Kickstarter has a massive following. Just the exposure you will get from the crowdfunding campaign is enough of a benefit to start it?
William Provancher: Yes, we hope that our Kickstarter campaign will raise awareness with mainstream gamers, so that our technology will propagate beyond use in Virtual Reality (VR). VR is a great seed market as it can lead in so many directions in addition to gaming, including the applications I mentioned above, as well as many training applications.
DamnGeeky: Do you have any plans on developing other high-end gaming input devices in the future?
William Provancher: Most of our work will be on feedback devices rather than input devices.We have a lot of ideas of directions we can take our technology, but we’ll have to see what opportunities present themselves in the future. We will also be pursuing several small business government grants (SBIRS), which may make it possible to pursue other applications.
DamnGeeky: Are you an avid gamer? If yes, what is your favorite genre and game in particular?
William Provancher: I don’t have much time to play these days, but I like RPG games, such as Skyrim, or first person shooter (FPS) games like Battlefield, Modern Warfare, or Left 4 Dead. I actually just started playing video games again with my brother online a few years ago, as a way to “hang out” (remotely) and relax.
DamnGeeky: When you are not tinkering around with technology, what is your favorite pass time?
William Provancher: When I’m not working, I like hanging out and playing with my kids, working in my wood shop / workshop, watching American football (or throwing the football around with friends), and playing RPG games, such as Skyrim, or first person shooter (FPS) games like Battlefield, Modern Warfare, or Left 4 Dead, online with my brother when I find the time.