A Brief History of Haptic Feedback in Video Games

Picture of Fonz arcade cabinet
The original Fonz arcade cabinet

Currently, almost every modern video game console includes some form of vibrotactile feedback, but this was not always the case. As an increasing number of video games were made for computers and at-home entertainment systems, arcade game manufacturers sought ways to make their cabinet games more immersive. Though arcade controls were typically customized to each individual game, the increasing availability of video games outside of arcades placed pressure on companies to provide arcade visitors with experiences more uniquely tailored to branded game cabinets. In 1976, Sega’s game Moto-Cross (rebranded as Fonz) was the first to feature vibrotactile feedback, allowing each player to feel the rumble of their motorcycle as it crashed with another player’s bike on the screen. The control scheme was a success.

Cover picture of Earthshaker!
The Earthshaker! pinball machine from Williams Electronics

Over the next decade, several companies began integrating vibrotactile feedback into their arcade games. In 1983, Atari’s TX-1 allowed players to feel the rumble of a car while sitting in a virtual driver’s seat, demonstrating the first use of vibrotactile feedback to enhance the experience of a driving simulator. In 1989, Williams Electronics unveiled Earthshaker!, the first pinball machine to provide haptic feedback through vibrations. By the late 1990’s, nearly every driving simulator provided players with some form of tactile feedback, and several other genres adopted the technology. First-person shooting games would provide the kickback from firing a gun. Fighting games would deliver a rumble when a player was defeated. Arcade cabinets became prototypes of a future that simultaneously engaged our visual, auditory, and tactile modalities of perception.

As an increasing number of arcade games began integrating haptic feedback into their interfaces to differentiate their user experience from at-home consoles, console manufacturers took notice, and began exploring the possibility of adding vibrotactile effects to their mass-market systems. In 1997, Nintendo unveiled the Rumble Pak, which provided vibrotactile feedback spread throughout the Nintendo 64 game controller when used with compatible games. In the same year, Microsoft revealed the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro controller for PC games, and Sony released the DualShock controller for the Playstation. By 1999, the Sega Dreamcast also had two options for enhancing games with haptic feedback—the Sega Jump Pack and Performance Tremor Pack. These controllers used eccentric rotating mass motors with a simple control circuit. You can see a teardown of the Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak below:

Within a few short years, haptic feedback was no longer an optional enhancement for console games, but a feature expected by consumers. Every subsequent flagship game console included built-in vibrotactile feedback and a large library of compatible games. In late 2015, Valve, Inc. began shipping its Steam Controller, a game controller with touch-sensitive pads providing more advanced haptic feedback in place of analog sticks (through the use of linear resonant actuators). If the Steam Controller is successful, it could precipitate new controller designs for other video game platforms.

A picture of the Steam controller
Steam video game controller

As video game graphics become increasingly realistic an sophisticated, console manufacturers are also working to find additional ways to differentiate their products. Kinect, Wii, Playstation Move, and several other technologies are all attempts to provide an additional layer of interactivity to existing game platforms: tactile and kinesthetic feedback. Our bodies do not just receive information from our skin. Instead, they detect the position and orientation of our limbs, the amount of force we exert with our muscles, and our body’s orientation to further coordinate our interactions with other objects. The Nintendo Wii ushered in a library of games that not only provide vibrotactile feedback to our skin, but also rely on our motor coordination to perform tasks. The subsequent Microsoft Kinect and Playstation Move products use a similar design pattern. Although the aforementioned technologies have been improved upon over the last decade, their mass-market success hints at the future of video games and computer interfaces. Soon, they may be thoroughly integrated with our physical actions, so we can use the best form of user input available—our brains.

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Author: Shantanu Bala

Shantanu Bala graduated from Arizona State University in 2014 with a double B.S. in Computer Science and Psychology.

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