Hands-on With the Skinetic Haptic Vest

Just as the Game Developers Conference (GDC) got underway in San Francisco last week, French haptic specialist Actronika launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for its first consumer-focused device, a haptic vest called the Skinetic. Happily, the vest was at GDC 2022 and gmw3 got a taster of this early in production device; leaving the demonstration quite impressed.

Now, haptic vests are nothing new when it comes to virtual reality (VR) immersion, the most well-known being bHaptics’ range of devices. It’s a niche market yet one that could very well benefit from a couple of competitors and Skinetic could very well be the vest to do that; in the long run.

GDC 2022 - Skinetic
GDC 2022 – Skinetic. Image credit: gmw3

XS to XXL, it should fit  

Whenever I try on any peripheral designed for the body I’m always slightly hesitant because I’m a large guy. The last thing you want is for the product to either not fit around my frame or be unable to fasten, thus reducing the optimal haptic effect or making the whole endeavour null and void. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The Skinetic prototype fitted perfectly thanks to the easily adjustable side and shoulder straps.

It was very comfortable in fact, even with the protruding cable that ran down my back to the PC. This Actronika assures me is only for this prototype, with the final production version being fully wireless, having in-built WiFi5 tech.

Getting the vibe on

The Skinetic haptic vest has 20 actuators across the front and back panels, using Actronika’s patented voice-coil motors (VCM). What this provide was some excellent variance in feedback, from subtle environmental changes to full-on getting shot in the chest.

The first testing bench was a basic simulator environment where drones would fly out, circle around and shoot a number of different guns. Single-shot pistols hit with a satisfying thud, and I kept turning around to dynamically vary the placement between kidney shots to higher shoulder hits. Then in came the machinegun wielding drone, peppering me with projectiles that didn’t have the same force yet the actuators kept up nicely with the rapid-fire.

By far my favourite of the gun tests was the laser beam. You always see this in movies and videogames cutting through enemies, leaving a charred hole in its wake. Well, that’s essentially what the Skinetic was reproducing here. The haptics began building upon the front, gradually getting more intense whilst the back very slowly started to build in effect, as the virtual laser beam cut through me. Quite the unusual experience and the closest I’ll ever get to being run through with a lightsaber.

After that Actronika unleashed environmental effects that were far more full-body. Rain dabbled across my chest and down my back, whilst a sudden surge of fire seemed to activate all the actuators at once, almost in a nice massaging rhythm. The climax of this sequence was the nuclear blast where a wave of rumbling from front to back rippled across my torso. These larger explosions and effects are dramatic and in the right scene probably highly effective, yet for me, in this test, it was the more precise feedback that had the greatest impact.

Guns at the ready

This was all passive testing, simply stand there and take the impacts. Really what I wanted was some in-game action to demo the Skinetic on. And Actronicka provided in the form of a mode for Half-Life: Alyx. In a small sandbox area, I was treated to all the guns, being able to drop in enemies like the Combine soldiers, the odd headcrab or two and that annoying electric dog thing.

Low and behold, this experience was far more satisfying, taking a few rounds from the Combine gave a suitable short, sharp kick from the vest. It’s the only time I’ve ever encouraged the Combine to shoot at me, it gives the false sense that you’re wearing protective body armour.

A movie to move you

Actronika might be targeting gamers and VR players with the Skinetic – it was demoed with a Valve Index after all – yet the company doesn’t just see it being used in that regard. To complete the demonstration the team had married the vest up with a short scene from Avatar, with the idea that one day you could walk into a 4D cinema and put one of these on.

It was the scene where Jake, now controlling his new blue body encounters some of the local wildlife, first standing his ground against the giant rhino-like creature before that big, black, six-legged cat appears. As he runs through the jungle the vest provides that extra emphasis on each step, fall and scramble to safety. Having seen the movie several times, those additional haptics do provide extra depth to the spectacle.

Adding some skin to VR

I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the Skinetic haptic vest, as it delivered the kind of feedback I expect from this type of device. The actuators had enough power in them to really deliver a forceful response to input like gunfire, shooting games being one genre that truly benefits from haptics – you know if you get shot in the back for one thing.

However, this isn’t a final product and Actronika still has a long way to go to complete that Kickstarter. The other unknown is compatibility, having a technically awesome vest is one thing, having the software support from developers is another issue entirely. Some support is already there like the Half-Life: Alyx mod but much more is needed.

Skinetic is technically on point and it’s not due to be released until 2023, so gmw3 can’t wait to see how the vest is refined further.