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Could Force Feedback Thumbsticks Show Up in Next-Gen Controllers? [Video]

By Wesley Fenlon

A University research project builds on the force feedback introduced by the rumble pack over a decade ago.

Wiimotes, Move controllers, and Kinect sensors strive to deliver new levels of immersion to video games. They're the natural evolution of accessories introduced in generations past. Nintendo's zapper and later light guns simulated real pointing and aiming. Rumble packs delivered force feedback. Then came motion controls--we're still figuring out how to use those effectively.

Meanwhile, a project from the University of Utah takes a step back from waggle to re-examine what traditional game controllers can do with force feedback. Instead of making the entire controller rumble beneath your hands, they engineered something new: thumbsticks that push back.

In a very simple implementation, the nub could trace a movement path for a rhythm game or quick time event, thereby replacing visual cues that would normally be displayed on screen.

The thumbsticks on the University's prototype controller use small motorized nubs, shaped like the IBM TrackPoint, to provide players with directional feedback. The nubs are just a small part of the whole thumbstick. In a very simple implementation, the nub could trace a movement path for a rhythm game or quick time event, thereby replacing visual cues that would normally be displayed on screen. The user would feel the thumbstick move and then mimic the correct direction.

Ideally, the controller will do more to deliver immersion in games. The controller's designers have built in several movement patterns to mimic the physical sensation of several in-game actions, like crawling prone in a first person shooter. They hope to have the technology into production by the time Sony and Microsoft release new consoles.

We're skeptical these kinds of thumbsticks will show up on the next generation of controllers simply because they diverge a bit too much from the stick designs Microsoft and Sony have trained gamers to expect. But if they do, real game designers will undoubtedly come up with some interesting force feedback beyond the basics demonstrated in the video below.