What's Rumbling at Immersion?

Next-Gen.Biz speaks with haptic technology company Immersion about its new effort to bring force feedback to mobile phone

It wasn't that long ago when gamers played games with controllers that... gasp... didn't rumble. Of course nowadays, built-in force feedback is expected, and a lot of that has to do with Immersion, a company that specializes in touch tech.

However, Immersion has earned recognition in recent times not for its innovations in force feedback technology, but because of its litigation against game industry giants. In 2002, the company sued Sony and Microsoft for infringing on patents within the design of PS2 and Xbox controllers. Microsoft settled out of court in 2003, but Sony has been fighting the case ever since the original jury case in 2004, losing multiple courtroom battles against Immersion.

Gail Schaffer with Immersion's marketing team said that the company had tried to come to an amicable agreement with Sony and Microsoft before taking legal action. "We had originally licensed deals with Microsoft on the PC side, but unfortunately, when the console games started to come out, negotiations with Sony and Microsoft did not produce license agreements. As a technology company with more than 500 patents and patent applications, at some point, you have to take a stand and defend your intellectual property. Unfortunately, it had to be against two of the biggest companies on the face of the Earth."

Doug Rebert, sr. director of marketing at Immersion's mobility group made clear the force behind what has become a standard game controller feature. "We invented [force feedback]. It was a fairly high-end peripheral application when it was first introduced... When you feel the DualShock and the rumble in the game controllers, that's our type of technology."

Founded in 1993, Immersion's beginnings are rooted in PC gaming peripherals which used force feedback, or haptic technology. The company lays claim to several hundred patents related to haptics, and their technology is featured in peripherals such as Microsoft's Sidewinder PC flight sim stick from the 90s, as well as a slew of other peripherals including various input devices from companies including Logitech and Mad Catz.

With 500 different patents, would-be manufacturers of force-feedback peripherals had best check with Immersion before getting too deep into product development. Schaffer said that it wouldn't be "absolutely impossible for anyone to design around every single one of our patents, but it's probably pretty difficult."

Force feedback goes mobile

One of the latest projects at Immersion is what it calls VibeTonz, which is force feedback technology tailored for mobile phones. The implementation of tactile feedback in the mobile arena only seems natural, considering vibration motors in cell phones have been the norm for some years.

VibeTonz is a hardware / software solution that will enable game developers to create varying levels of vibration on a mobile to correspond with gameplay. Currently, the biggest hurdle for Immersion is getting OEMs to jump on board with the technology, as it's a new feature, and requires more advanced vibration capabilities than current phones offer, although Rebert said that special hardware circuitry is "minimal".

Further complicating the widespread acceptance of VibeTonz is that wireless carriers need to turn on the mobile force feedback features in order to make them available to customers. Perhaps more importantly, if Immersion plans to make any money off of VibeTonz, it needs to attract developers who are willing to program force feedback capabilities into games. Considering the technology is in the initial rollout phase and only a few phones support Immersion's technology, developers may not feel that the effort and cost to enable the feature would be worth it.

That's not to say that Immersion isn't putting considerable effort into getting OEMs and carriers to adopt the technology. After a year-and-a-half in the VibeTonz business, Immersion has rolled enabled phones out in Korea and Europe, where the feedback was implemented into its first mass-market phone. In Europe, major carriers T-Mobile and Orange have welcomed the technology, and in the U.S., Verizon, Metro PCS, Alltel and Sprint offer VibeTonz compatible phones. Rebert is expecting carriers to push OEMs to incorporate the tech into their hardware, and hopes both carriers and OEMs push game companies to develop feedback-enabled games.

Like many aspects of the mobile business, North American public lags a bit behind in the acceptance of mobile features when compared to parts of Europe and Asia. Immersion hasn't cracked the North American market as far as VibeTonz is concerned. There has only been one feedback-compatible phone in the U.S., the Samsung n330, and that wasn't produced at mass-market volumes. Rebert said that VibeTonz have "been a tough sell" because of the Samsung's low profile (less than 100,000 were sold -- not exactly a hit) and only a few available games.

Still, Immersion expects two VibeTonz-compatible mass-market phones to hit the U.S. during first half of this year, which "will hopefully break open the U.S. market", according to Rebert. "It's a little bit of 'the chicken and the egg'. You get the phone on the market, then you get the operator excited, then they get the game companies excited."

Speaking of games, companies on-board with Immersion's force feedback include Pulse Interactive, which is expected to publish a 3D version of Quake for mobiles, Indiagames and I-play. Immersion is also in talks with "virtually all of the major players practically in the world", including companies such as EA Mobile and Namco Wireless.

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