Carnegie Mellon University
August 08, 2011

Press Release: Disney Research Pittsburgh Demonstrates Tactile Tech Guaranteed To Send Shivers Down Your Spine

Surround Haptics Exploits Phantom Sensations and Other Tactile Illusions

Contacts: Byron Spice, Carnegie Mellon / 412-268-9068 /
Jennifer Liu, Walt Disney Imagineering / 818-544-6130 /

Disney Tactile TechPITTSBURGH—A new tactile technology developed at Disney Research, Pittsburgh (DRP), called Surround Haptics, makes it possible for video game players and film viewers to feel a wide variety of sensations, from the smoothness of a finger being drawn against skin to the jolt of a collision.

The technology is based on rigorous psychophysical experiments and new models of tactile perception. Disney will demonstrate Surround Haptics Aug. 7-11 at the Emerging Technology Exhibition at SIGGRAPH 2011, the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Vancouver.

In the demonstration developed in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and others, the technology will enhance a high-intensity driving simulator game in collaboration with Disney's Black Rock Studio. With players seated in a chair outfitted with inexpensive vibrating actuators, Surround Haptics will enable them to feel road imperfections and objects falling on the car, sense skidding, braking and acceleration, and experience ripples of sensation when cars collide or jump and land.

"Although we have only implemented Surround Haptics with a gaming chair to date, the technology can be easily embedded into clothing, gloves, sports equipment and mobile computing devices," said Ivan Poupyrev, senior research scientist at DRP, who invented and developed Surround Haptics with Ali Israr, also of DRP. "This technology has the capability of enhancing the perception of flying or falling, of shrinking or growing, of feeling bugs creeping on your skin. The possibilities are endless."

The DRP researchers have accomplished this feat by designing an algorithm for controlling an array of vibrating actuators in such a way as to create "virtual actuators" anywhere within the grid of actuators. A virtual actuator, Poupyrev said, can be created between any two physical actuators; the user has the illusion of feeling only the virtual actuator.

As a result, users don't feel the general buzzing or pulsing typical of most haptic devices today, but can feel discrete, continuous motions such as a finger tracing a pattern on skin.  

The phenomenon of phantom sensations created by actuators has been known for more than 50 years, but its use in tactile displays has been limited because of an incomplete understanding of control mechanisms. DRP researchers were able to develop their control algorithm by systematically measuring users' ability to feel physical actuators vs. virtual actuators under a variety of stimulation levels. They then developed control models that were validated by further psychophysical experiments.

In addition to enhancing user experiences with interactive games, movies and music, Surround Haptics' underlying technology promises to provide new tactile means of communication for the blind, emergency workers, vehicle operators, athletes and others.

The SIGGRAPH demonstration of Surround Haptics was developed in collaboration with Kenny Mitchell and Huw Bowles of Disney's Black Rock Studio; Neil Hutchinson of Roundcube Entertainment Ltd; Christopher Ioffreda, an undergraduate in Carnegie Mellon's School of Design who is a Disney lab associate; Mark Baskinger, CMU associate professor of design; Seung-Chan Kim a Ph.D. student in the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology who is interning at the Disney lab; and Jan Stec, a recent graduate of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center who interned at the Disney lab.