The missing link for virtual reality that truly blows me away arrived late last year when I got my hands on the Oculus Touch controllers, which allow you to interact in VR with your hands. Now that we’ve crossed that truly immersive threshold, the next step is the rest of our senses: haptic feedback.
And while we’re still not quite there yet in terms of affordable, commercial haptic feedback suits, I’ve stumbled upon what I think may be the next best solution in the meantime: the Subpac M2 audio feedback vest.
A new tool in the audio arsenal
Weighing just four pounds, the wearable device fits snugly around your torso and is designed to let you literally “feel” the music you’re listening to. The black plastic and fabric layered device, which looks like a tactical vest (in a cool way), features a rechargeable lithium ion battery that lasts 8 hours (rechargeable in 2 hours), can handle sweat but isn’t waterproof, and can be used wirelessly via Bluetooth or through a 3.5mm stereo plug.
But beyond music, it turns out that the Subpac M2 also does a damn good job at providing a kind of faux haptic feedback in VR. Although the interactions and impacts that you experience in VR aren’t directly represented through the Subpac M2, wearing the it offers something close to a haptic feedback experience. The allusion comes when the vest’s feedback control is set to a high level.
How it Feels
The best way to describe the sensations delivered by the Subpac M2 is to think of those insane and incredibly-annoying-unless-you’re-riding-in-them-with-your-best-friend cars that are tricked out with giant subwoofers packed into the trunk. When you ride in one of those monsters you can literally see your skin vibrate because the low frequency sound waves are so powerful (an effect that allows people to hear you coming from several blocks away).
What’s amazing about the Subpac M2 is that, assuming you like those sensations, you get the same effect throughout your torso without disturbing the neighbors. I spent about an hour just listening to music pumped into it via Bluetooth from my iPhone, listening to hip-hop, hard rock and electronic music.
If all you want is to fully immerse yourself in the music from your smartphone, there is nothing like the Subpac M2. It turns listening to music into a new experience. That alone makes the Subpac M2 worth the minimal hassle of strapping on the size-adjustable vest. But things got really interesting when I hooked it up to a PC running a VR headset.
Faux haptic feedback in VR
The obvious first choice to test out the Subpac M2’s faux haptic feedback was the VR boxing experience called Thrill of the Fight. If you’re not familiar, Thrill of the Fight pits you against a variety of boxing opponents in a boxing ring environment that feels fairly realistic, despite the old school video game aesthetic.
I already love Thrill of the Fight because you actually get a bit of a workout bobbing, weaving and jabbing your way through opponents. But that experience is ratcheted up to an entirely new level when you turn the Subpac M2’s feedback knob to its highest levels (not recommended for those with slight frames).
When wearing the Subpac M2, the sound effects of each punch reverberate through your torso as they hit your virtual body, delivering a convincing experience of being “punched” in VR.
No, this is not true haptic feedback, but the overall experience is an effective substitute.
After about 10 minutes boxing in VR, reacting to the combination of visuals as well as the audio impact of the punches as represented through the Subpac M2, I actually worked up a sweat and was breathing pretty damn hard once I took off the VR headset.
But something told me to try one more experiment: What would it feel like in a zombie shooter game like Arizona Sunshine? The game is known for its terrifyingly immersive environments, but those sensations are significantly more impactful when the recoil from your revolver makes such a powerful sound that you feel it in your torso. Suddenly, you’re not just holding an Oculist Touch controller, you’re holding a zombie slaying hand cannon.
Weird accessory or solid piece of VR kit?
The biggest surprise with the Subpac M2 is its accessibility despite the fact that there’s not much like it on the market. The build quality and design are top-notch, and while it looks like a pricey piece of equipment, the makers of the Subpac M2 actually got it right by pricing the device at $299.
For an admittedly non-essential accessory, that price might be too much for someone on a tight budget, but if you’re someone who thinks paying $300 for a pair of Beats headphones makes sense, you have to at least give the Subpac M2 a try.
As for VR users, it’s right in the sweet spot for those who can afford fully equipped, high-end VR systems like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. (And since it’s lightweight and completely mobile-friendly, there’s also nothing stopping you from using it with the Samsung Gear VR or the Google Daydream View VR headsets.)