The Future of 4D Home Cinema: A Haptic Effects Track

Diagram of 4D Movie Theater
Diagram of a 4D movie theater from Wikipedia.

With the rise of Netflix and Youtube as dominant platforms for video consumption, fewer people are visiting theaters to watch movies. An increasing amount of multimedia content will be designed for the home theater as these streaming services grow their libraries. Netflix users consume content on whichever screen is available: a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. As the user experience for content consumption shifts towards mobile applications and at-home viewing, the interactive elements of 3D and 4D film previously reserved for movie theaters will transition to technologies easily adopted by households.

Good video is engaging – it tells a compelling story with excellent production value. Since there is increasing competition for viewership between different streaming platforms, devices, and content production studios, there is an increasing demand for differentiated content – content that provides a unique experience to its viewers.

The first movie to go beyond ordinary audio-visual tracks was The Scent of Mystery, a 1960 movie that pioneered the concept of 4D film with a technology dubbed “Smell-o-Vision,” which worked by injecting scents into the seats of a theater. Over the last half-century, the technology has become more advanced. Earlier this year, select theaters around the world screened a ‘4DX’ version of The Jungle Book, which featured mechanized fog, wind, motion, rain, lightning, vibrations and scents, all synchronized to each scene.

As more viewers move towards in-home movie watching systems, the concepts espoused by 4D films may develop into a series of increasingly-advanced interactive home theater systems. If you’re trying to deliver rich multimedia content with haptic feedback, you have several options available to you.

HTML5 Video

HTML5 video can have vibrotactile haptic effects presented alongside the content using the vibration API. You can also use the Haptics.js library to provide haptic feedback on the mobile web:

Haptics.js is a simple JavaScript library that allows you to implement vibrotactile effects using the HTML5 implementation of navigator.vibrate. In addition to providing a cross-browser compatibility layer, Haptics.js allows you to quickly create different vibrotactile effects, including fading vibrations, heartbeats, notifications, and error alerts.

iPhone and iPad

When programming an iOS application for iPhone or iPad, the app can create patterns of vibration on the device using a simple function call. You can find more information about the iOS vibration API’s on StackOverflow.

Android devices

Like iOS, Android provides access to the vibration motor of a device, and the same functionality can be accomplished with just a few function calls to the native Android vibration motor API.

Phillips Hue and Other Smart Bulbs

The experience of being in a movie theater can extend beyond just a large screen – the ambient lighting changes to optimize the viewing experience. Smart light bulbs like the Phillips Hue system allow content creators to add an additional dimension of interactivity to their media: in addition to manipulating the screen, they can integrate with the Phillips Hue API’s to change the color temperature of a room to match the color temperature of a scene in a movie.

Nest and Other Smart Thermostats

Like ambient light, ambient temperature can now be changed programmatically as well through the API’s provided by Nest and other smart thermostats. A movie can be made more engaging by modifying the ambient temperature to match each scene.

Custom Hardware

You can create custom hardware that provides haptic feedback alongside a movie:

How do devices provide haptic feedback?

In addition to modifying ambient temperature, actuators like a Peltier diode can provide localized temperature feedback:

Temperature Feedback with the Thermoelectric (Peltier) Effect

And the scope of interactivity goes far beyond the capabilities of individual actuators – instead, a combination of different forms of haptic feedback can create interesting and engaging tactile illusions:

Tactile Illusions: Interesting Ways Our Brains Fail

Although 4D cinema is still a novelty, the concept may become more popular as more of our devices are connected to the Internet and integrated with the content delivery platforms we use most often.


At Somatic Labs, we’re using haptic technology in Moment, a wearable device that lets you hack your sense of touch.

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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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