New game controller tugs on players’ thumb tips

University of Utah engineers have designed a new kind of video game controller that gives players the sensation of the tug of a fishing line, the recoil of a gun or the feeling of ocean waves.

The controller 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,” says William Provancher, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“I’m hoping we can get this into production when the next game consoles come out in a couple of years.”

The prototype looks a lot like the controllers for Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation – but with a little addition to the controller’s normal thumb joysticks. In the new controller, the middle of each ring-shaped thumb stick has a round, red ‘tactor’.   


If a gamer’s avatar runs into a wall, the tactor under the thumb moves back to mimic impact. Both tactors can move from side to side to mimic ocean waves. And when a fish bites in a game the researchers tried, “as the fish jerks on the line, you can feel the tactor jerk under your thumb,” Provancher says.

While most video games are designed so the left thumb stick controls motion and the right controls the player’s gaze or aim, the Utah controller manages things slightly differently.

As a soldier avatar crawls forward, for example, 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.

Provancher hopes that, along with gaming, the new controller could be adapted for use as a smart phone peripheral device. A phone would fit into the device with game-controlling thumb sticks and tactors on each side of the phone.