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Complete Immersion: Force Feedback on the Mac
December 20, 2002 | Lucian Fong

Force feedback has become an integral part of PC and console gaming for the past few years. Using a device that provides tactile feedback in response to in-game actions has provided that extra level of interaction and immersion not previously found in racing and flight simulators. Although the aforementioned genres have not been very abundant on the Mac, Mac gamers have always coveted force feedback technology, if for no reason than to keep pace with our PC bretheren. Today, Immersion, the company responsible for popularizing force feedback on the PC, will grant the wishes of Mac gamers.

Founded in 1993, Immersion took upon themselves the task of bringing tactile feedback technology to the masses for practical use. Their mission statement is to compliment the senses of sight and sound in a computing environment by engaging "a third sense touch to give you a more complete, intuitive experience." Immersion's technology isn't limited to just personal computers. Their current markets include entertainment, medical training, automotive, and 3D simulation.

What is Force Feedback?
Force feedback is an application of haptics, or the science of touch. The simplest example is a rumble controller, like those found on Playstation 2 and Xbox game consoles. Motors inside of the controller vibrate with varying force depending on the events that occur within the game. For instance, a distant or small explosion will cause the motors to buzz slightly, while a close range explosion will shake the controller violently.

In more complex applications, the sensation of mass/weight, hardness/stiffness, roughness/textures, pulses, and any combination of those effects can be transmitted from the haptic device to your hand through a combination of powerful and precise motors, gears and sensors. This is particularly useful in medical simulations where the use of fruit, animals, and cadavers fail to provide a sense of realism. Immersion has provided the technology for virtual reality medical and scientific systems that use advanced computer graphics, high-fidelity sound and haptic feedback to overcome those limitations.

Immersion also has it's hands in the 3D capture and interaction market, where companies like Boeing, Ford and General Motors use virtual reality in the design and prototyping process. Instead of building a real prototype which may be prohibitively expensive, engineers can don a "cyberglove" which allows them to physically interact with the parts in the virtual prototype. The result is lower development costs and potentially shorter to-market times.

A growing market for haptics is in the automobile industry. Those of you familiar with cars may have heard of BMW's iDrive used in the new 7-series sedan. Instead of littering the dashboard with innumerable buttons and dials, BMW decided to consolidate many of the cabin controls into a multi-function knob located in the center console. Depending on the function you are adjusting, the dial will provide tactile feedback in different ways. Nissan and Volkswagen are also developing similar systems.

The force feedback technology used in computing and entertainment is slightly less complex, but is built upon the same principles. In a racing game, the gears and motors in the racing wheel will allow you to "feel" the surface of the road you're driving on and sense oversteer and understeer so you can counter. A force feedback joystick will simulate turbulence or a damaged wing on your plane in a flight simulator. On the PC, Immersion's technology has been used in all types of games, including Black and White, Unreal Tournament 2003, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, and even The Learning Company/RiverDeep's educational titles.


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