As I placed each object into my hand, I grew more starry-eyed.
The snowball felt cold. The soda can felt round as it rolled up my palm. As the miniature deer bucked its hind legs, I felt each individual hoof land on my skin.
Finally, a dragon flew into the room, and I felt the heat of its fiery breath.
I had just experienced a demonstration for a new product being developed by HaptX, a San Luis Obispo tech startup that’s seeking to make virtual reality more immersive than ever by letting you touch what you see. They’re called HaptX Gloves.
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Formerly known as AxonVR Corporation, Haptx was started in 2012 by CEO Jake Rubin, who dropped out of college at age 20 to become an entrepreneur, according to Andrew Mitrak, the company’s director of marketing.
“He would dream about the ‘Star Trek’ holodeck or ‘The Matrix,’ noticed progress on visual virtual reality on products like the Oculus and later even smartphones, and thought that the missing piece was touch,” Mitrak said.
Rubin took his idea to Bob Crockett, Cal Poly professor and chair of the biomedical engineering department.
He’s also the president of San Luis Obispo engineering firm Proof of Concept, LLC, which leverages Cal Poly’s resources to provide research and development for startups such as HaptX.
“Jake recognized that he would need a lot of different engineering skills,” said Crockett, who guides Haptx’s hardware development as the company’s lead engineer. “So we pulled together the right people, started in my lab at Cal Poly, and proved we can get it done.”
HaptX Gloves interface with virtual reality and uses precise motion tracking, along with 100 points of input on the glove, to provide tactile feedback in conjunction with what you see while wearing a VR headset. The gloves can track the difference between hard and soft touch, and is accurate to up to one-third of a millimeter, according to Mitrak.
“You can feel every raindrop, every leg of a spider in your hand,” he said. “You can feel a phone squeeze in your hand or your hand press up against a surface.”
HaptX debuted a prototype demo of the gloves at Sundance Film Festival in January. Since then, the company has been awarded the Lumiere Award by the Advanced Imaging Society, which recognizes companies for their technical achievement and innovations in art and entertainment.
HaptX hopes that Haptx Gloves can be used for a variety of industrial applications, such as immersive designing and workplace training.
For instance, designing a new car can be “a three-year process from going to a model on a screen to being able to sit in the physical interior,” Mitrak said. “With VR you can see and feel the exterior, reach out and touch the dashboard and get more nuanced designer views.”
In addition, HaptX has worked with Cal Fire in developing programs to help train new firefighters.
“First responders have to learn to use a pump panel to regulate water pressure,” Mitrak said. “They normally have to train on the actual panel, but with HaptX you can train people virtually and allow them to develop their skills without potentially wasting time or resources.”
Although Haptx initially planned to move to Seattle, Crockett said the company is firmly rooted in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly’s presence is one of the biggest factors for that location.
“People here work really, really hard,” Crockett said. “The people here are very passionate about their work and the project because its such a revolutionary technology. But they can have a life outside of work too, and they’re happy to be here on the Central Coast.”
“San Luis Obispo is unique in that they are very supportive of their local businesses,” he added. “Companies that are interested in starting out in San Luis Obispo have an incentive to help each other out and help the local ecosystem.
“I think one thing we can do to help each other would be to get together and have a voice in economic development.”