The PlayStation DualShock’s Legacy and the Future of Haptics

PlayStation is changing its controller’s haptic tech, so we asked two experts to explain the original’s impact — and what’s next.
Hal Koss
March 19, 2020
Updated: June 1, 2020
Hal Koss
March 19, 2020
Updated: June 1, 2020

when Sony launches PlayStation 5 in late 2020, it will do so without its signature rumble feedback technology in its controllers, building them instead with more sophisticated haptic capabilities.

The DualShock controller and its soon-to-be-obsolete haptic feedback tech was introduced by Sony in 1997. Look inside and you’ll see two spinning motors of differing weights, one in each handle. They’re rigged to produce tactile sensations based on the action that takes place in the game, so if you get tackled in a football game or hit in a shooter, the controller buzzes and shakes in your hand.

The vibrating feature may seem old hat to you now, but make no mistake: The advent of DualShock’s rumble technology was a watershed moment in the history of immersive video game hardware.

As a sort of tribute, then, Built In asked two experts — an academic and an industry exec — to discuss the DualShock and its impact on haptics in gaming.

OUR GAMING HAPTICS EXPERTS

  • David Parisi, associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston and author of the book Archaeologies of Touch.
  • Chris Ullrich, chief technology officer of Immersion Corporation, a publicly traded company that innovates touch feedback technology.

 

WHAT’S THE LEGACY OF THE DUALSHOCK CONTROLLER?

Parisi: The DualShock technology has had a really lasting impact on the field. In part that’s because that technology — with some very small refinements — is still present in PlayStation consoles four generations later. It’s present in the first generation of Xbox controllers and is still again with us with the Xbox One controller.

For a lot of the population (pre-cell phone, pre-smartphone especially) their first encounter with haptic technology — the first thing that brings haptic technology into the home — is the DualShock. If I had to take a rough guess at the number, I’d say there’s at least a billion rumble-enabled devices in circulation worldwide that specifically use that dual motor system found in the Sony and Xbox controller.

One of the things that fascinates me about rumble is that it basically is unchanged for 20-plus years.

For a lot of the population (pre-cell phone, pre-smartphone especially) their first encounter with haptic technology — the first thing that brings haptic technology into the home — is the DualShock.

Ullrich: The DualShock controller, when it first came out for the original PlayStation, was probably the first mass-market console [controller] that had high-quality haptic feedback that was easy to code and program and for developers to use to create experiences. There had been [Nintendo 64’s] Rumble Pak before that, but that was an add-on.

It really opened up the field of haptics from a gameplay perspective, because developers could now start playing around with this new sensation, this new capability to add depth and realism. For gamers, it was a novel and compelling experience that went from an add-on to a standard feature of a major platform. Since that time, the controller geometry and form factor has changed very little.

As a haptics company, were super happy that haptics was part of that original design and became basically a de facto standard from that point forward.

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WHY THE STAGNATION IN INNOVATION?

Parisi: My sense, from talking to people who work in the industry, is that you dont really have people who are getting specialized training in writing haptic effects for video games. The sense I get from talking to people who worked on games is that, oftentimes, rumble is added on after the fact.

I think its a question of not quite knowing how to value what [haptics] adds to the game experience. They did a user study where they asked people how much value it added, and the results were pretty positive. But at the same time, really well-done rumble is not necessarily something thats going to drive sales of the game.

Haptics is a really difficult-to-market feature, because its something that you have to feel in order to appreciate.

Ullrich: A hardware optimization has happened in the marketplace where the price and the efficiency of getting that level of performance into a controller at a very low cost has been highly optimized in the supply chain. And so changing it doesnt make a lot of sense, unless theres some completely new feature experience that can be made available to developers and end users. Theres also a limitation there based on the fact that theres not a very advanced tool chain for content creators to develop haptic experiences.

Haptics is a really difficult-to-market feature, because its something that you have to feel in order to appreciate. Whereas amazing high-quality graphics you can easily demonstrate and show.

It wasnt until companies like, for example, Apple with the iPhone, started actually producing high-quality, high-fidelity, high-definition haptic experiences that were widely appreciated in the marketplace that the console guys felt like there was a sufficient market and a sufficient opportunity to upgrade the haptic functionality of the DualShock form factor.

 

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF GAMING HAPTICS LOOK LIKE?

Parisi: If we were to look ahead to the next generation, you do have a few haptic bodysuits, a few haptic gloves that are being designed. The Teslasuit and the HaptX force feedback glove were both initially imagined as gaming peripherals, but then both companies pivoted away from gaming to focus on industrial and scientific applications, because they couldn’t scale the cost of the technologies down to make it consumer grade.

You can find some quotes like going back to 2000 where people, when they talk about rumble, they talk about it as sort of a neat first step. One of the things I think is perpetually fascinating about this is how we keep not taking that next step. Theres sort of a perpetual frustration or what I call in my book a perpetual imminence to the technology. It seems like it’s always about to arrive, but rumble isnt good enough to count as its arrival.

Developers are going to find themselves like kids in a candy store.

Ullrich: Im actually extremely excited. At Immersion, we’ve been researching and developing advanced haptic experiences for most of our 27-year history. And were always four or five years ahead of the market, and its really hard for us to know whats possible in the lab and to be waiting around for it to make its way into the marketplace.

With the advent of the PlayStation 5 controller, which definitely has advanced haptics, were really excited to see what developers are going to do with that capability to make rich and interesting experiences. Theyre taking the old rumble motors and making them high fidelity [and] adding some kind of feedback on the trigger elements of the device. Developers are going to find themselves like kids in a candy store.

I think gamers are going to be shocked by the difference in fidelity from a rumble-style controller to HD-style controller. Even in the next year or two, Im really excited to see that play out on the content side. As we go forward into the future, I expect to see more consoles and PC controllers adopt that technology as well.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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