Empty. The goblet in your hand is unmistakably empty. However, at the end of your arm, you thought you felt water being poured into it – a video broadcast on a computer screen misled you by showing you, precisely, a carafe pouring into a small cardboard glass. Error: at the bottom of the container, there is nothing, despite the vibrations perceived by your fingers.
The rest of the video is a succession of lures, always more refined. Do we pour rice into the virtual cup? You hear the slight crackling of this flow and feel an infinity of small vibrations but, once again, you are fooled. The turn of force is even more astonishing when it is a small marble which falls into the filmed goblet before rolling to the bottom of it. the circular motion is restored, your knuckles would swear it. And still nothing at the bottom of the glass.
Generators of subtle vibrations
Welcome to Actronika, a French start-up which is one of the pioneers in the small emerging world of haptics. Haptic? Of Greek origin, the word refers to everything related to touch. Having developed tiny motors that generate vibrations subtle and computer intelligence to modulate them finely, Actronika is full of projects to make virtuality even more credible. Starting from a certainty: after hearing and sight, new frontier is that of touch, “one of the senses we trust the most”, explains Damien Faux, R&D manager of the small company of around twenty people based in Paris in the 19th arrondissement. “It’s a very deep meaning, always on the alert and which brings us back to our state of Homo sapiens”, abounds Gilles Meyer, serial entrepreneur who co-founded the company in 2016 and runs it today.
Admittedly, the idea is not entirely new. The best-known example: controllers of game consoles, for a long time already, produce vibrations accentuating the immersion. But a new step is being taken. Until recently, computer power did not allow fast enough signal processing. “Since 2015 roughly, says Gilles Meyer, microprocessors have made it possible to pass below the bar of a hundredth of a second between the order and the effect produced, which ensures a real synchronization effect”. And lets consider various uses.
Another development, more recent still, which increases the interest shown in the society: the emergence of the metaverse. Since Mark Zuckerberg transformed Facebook into Meta, the curiosity of the general public has increased for anything that can increase the feeling of immersion in a virtual world. Without seeing too far and sinking into the nightmare of totally virtualized lives, Damien Faux remarks that “in a post-covid world, one can imagine that certain virtual social interactions can be enriched by sensations”. Taking the avatar of a friend in your arms, shaking his hand… so many “gestures” which, one day, could translate into real physical sensations.
This is somewhat the spirit of Actronika’s flagship product, on which the company intends to demonstrate the extent of its know-how. Thanks to pre-orders by crowdfunding, the start-up proposes to market a jacket called Skinetic. Equipped with around twenty small actuators – the famous motors generating the vibrations – it should allow, at first, to dive deep into the game. Here again, the prototype allows you to live a striking experience.
Leisure and the automotive industry
This time, we put on virtual reality glasses to immerse ourselves in a minimalist setting in which weapons appear. A gun is shooting at you from the right? You feel an impact on your side. A bazooka does the same on your left? The shock, much stronger, is perceptible on the other side. Is the rain starting to fall? Here is a multitude of small drops falling on the shoulders, or on your back if you lean forward, your chest if you look up. As for the final, massive explosion, it shakes your whole rib cage.
“The world of gaming should allow us to put the jacket on the market, with the idea of then expanding the public”declares Damien Faux. ” This jacketadds Gilles Meyer, allows us to fully demonstrate our technology. » Beyond the video game, it is a broader sphere of leisure that is targeted. With unexpected applications induced by vibrations: “We can even imagine that the hearing impaired go to listen to a philharmonic concert and hear the music better thanks to bone conduction. »
In the meantime, less mainstream and rather unexpected applications appear. In a small technical room, Gwendal Fernet is busy around a 3D printer. This mechatronics engineer is testing, for an automobile brand that he will not reveal, new haptic features. The automotive sector, after having been hesitant, is now taking a close interest in this technology. “At first people thought we were showing them gimmicks, asking us what haptics were, but now all manufacturers are racing to enrich cockpit feel”explains Adrien Vives, the commercial director.
Device already well known: the steering wheel that shakes on the highway when the car changes course. Future device: the driver’s seat which vibrates, on the left, to warn of a danger linked to the blind spot of the mirror. Another objective set by the engineers in the sector: on the dashboards, which have become large touch screens, to create a sensation of a click under the finger to give the user confirmation that he has indeed initiated a command. Even if the screen, in reality, has not moved one iota. “Touch makes it possible to directly reach deep emotions and, in this specific case, to put the user in confidence”summarizes Adrien Vives.
The axis of luxury
The luxury sector is another booming area of development that the pioneers of haptics did not originally see coming: touch appears to be one of the means likely to enrich the customer’s experience on the premises. of sales, or even in relation to the products. Haptics could also renew the world of professional training. Example with the workers in charge of applying the fresh paint on cars leaving the factory. A task that requires a lot of gestural precision, and that Actronika has managed to simulate.
Equipped with a virtual reality helmet and an equally dummy paint gun, the apprentices train to apply the colors evenly, feeling the real movements of the gun… without wasting a milliliter of paint. Finally, medicine could also benefit from this new discipline, in particular by making it possible to restore sensations to a surgeon who would carry out a operation via a robotic device.
The competition? It takes various forms. There would be ” a dozen actors in the world », according to Gilles Meyer. In Germany, Lofelt has developed headphones that add to the music, in time real, physical sensations. In the United Kingdom, Ultraleap manages to create sensations thanks to a multitude of tiny speakers broadcasting ultrasonic waves. In South Korea, the company BHaptics is also developing a jacket allowing you to immerse yourself in a virtual universe. In Grenoble, Hap2U offers several technologies, particularly around touch screens. Sign that the discipline is not destined to remain confidential: Samsung and Apple have invested in it. Apple would even “a hundred people working full time on hapticsassures Giller Meyer. Apple is the Rolls, the only really impressive large group on this technology. »
“The competition is increasing, but so is the cake”, summarizes Adrien Vives. Even if the small motors patented by Actronika are among the most versatile, making it possible to cover a frequency range from 10 to 500 Hertz, it is above all with its software processing that the French start-up hopes to make a difference. “We are lucky to have believed in haptics from the very beginning, which allowed us to develop software capable of playing complex and configurable effects”believes Gilles Meyer, whose company has just been awarded the Palme d’or in the field of new technologies by the Comité de France.
There remains one barrier that the company has to overcome: relocating production. At this stage, small “actuators” are almost systematically produced in China. Gilles Meyer has not completely given up, in the framework of the Skinetic jacket project, to repatriate its production to France: “I am 52 years old and I would like to do something useful for my country. » By itself, the goal would not seem unrealistic: “There are regions of France where the square meter is not expensive and where the workforce could easily be well trained, especially in the field of technical textiles.” But the procedures in France “take too long”, regrets Marina Crifar, communication manager. Result: the first batch of jackets, expected for the end of the year, may well be produced in other European countries or in Turkey.
Convincing private investors remains a way of the cross, observes Gilles Meyer. “Often, they prefer to finance smartphone apps and business models based on recurring revenues, rather than an industrial company which, each year, has to go up the Annapurna.” Will the France 2030 plan change the situation? Gilles Meyer calls for a start: “If we really want to reindustrialize, we have to move up a gear.” Because the metaverse and virtual reality will also pass… through factories…