A new prototype video games controller has been produced by a US research team that "pulls and stretches" the thumb tips to simulate sensations, such as the "recoil of a gun" or "tug of a fishing line".
Engineers from The University of Utah said that the new controller vibrates like existing devices, but also tugs the thumbs in different directions to create more realistic sensations.
They are currently demonstrating the controller at an engineering symposium in Vancouver, Canada, but are also pitching it to the console makers, including Microsoft.
"I'm hoping we can get this into production when the next game consoles come out in a couple of years," says William Provancher, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, in a blog post.
The Nintendo 64 was the first console to feature 'haptic' or touch feedback in its controller via the "rumble pack" in the late 1990s, which vibrated at key moments, such as when a car goes off road or when striking someone with a Star Wars lightsaber.
But the university's controller does something extra, in that it delivers "directional cues" to the player by stretching the skin of the thumb tips in different directions.
"We have developed feedback modes that enhance immersiveness and realism for gaming scenarios such as collision, recoil from a gun, the feeling of being pushed by ocean waves or crawling prone in a first-person shooter game," said Provancher.
The controller looks similar to an Xbox 360 controller, but the analogue sticks feature "tactors", or round red contact buds that work similarly to pointing sticks on a Thinkpad laptop.
Should a gamer's avatar run into a wall, the tactor under the thump will mimic the impact. They can also move side to side to mimic the motion of the ocean waves, or recreate the twitch of a fishing line, as demonstrated by a specially-created game called Feelin' Fishy.
"Video games commonly are designed so the left thumb stick controls motion and the right controls the player's gaze or aim," said Provancher in the blog.
"With the new controller, as a soldier avatar crawls forward, the player pushes the left thumb stick forward and feels the tactors tugging alternately back and forth under both thumbs, mimicking the soldier crawling first with one arm, then the other."
So far, Provancher and his team have built a library of five tactile effects: bounce, pulse, a wave effect, a circular movement, and the feeling of crawling prone along the ground. A patent is pending on the actual controller device.
Alongside consoles, he hopes to adapt the new game controller design for use as a smartphone peripheral, involving the handset being placed in a device containing the game-controlling thumb sticks and tactors.