Sony wants us to 'feel' next-gen games with the new DualSense controller for PlayStation 5

For analyst Lewis Ward, haptic feedback is going to go a long way in delivering next-gen immersion. [UPDATED]

(Update 4/9/2020) A representative for Immersion has gotten back to GameDaily, essentially confirming that they are involved on some level with the DualSense controller. "Sony has access to Immersion’s advanced haptics patent portfolio and haptics technology, under the terms of the agreement," the rep said, pointing to a press release from May 2019. The release specifically states that Sony can leverage Immersion’s haptics technology "for gaming controllers and VR controllers." 

(Original story 4/8/2020)

In the lead up to the launch of next-gen video game hardware, Sony has been mum on the appearance of the PlayStation 5. The manufacturer has touted the console’s tech power, but we have yet to see what the machine actually looks like. We did, however, get a tease this week with the reveal of the DualSense, the controller that will ship with the PlayStation 5 console.

In a PlayStation Blog post, Sony senior vice president of platform planning and management Hideaki Nishino divulged a host of details on the DualSense controller, including adaptive triggers, a redesigned light bar, and haptic feedback.

“We had a great opportunity with PS5 to innovate by offering game creators the ability to explore how they can heighten that feeling of immersion through our new controller,” Nishino wrote. “This is why we adopted haptic feedback, which adds a variety of powerful sensations you’ll feel when you play, such as the slow grittiness of driving a car through mud.” 

We’re all familiar with rumble vibrations in our game controllers. After all, it’s been around since the 1990s. Haptic feedback is the next step in vibration technology, allowing varied and precise levels of rumble to simulate more subtle and varied actions. While Microsoft and Nintendo have already adopted haptic feedback in their respective consoles, Sony has been slow on the uptake.

“Sony is the only major console provider, who has basically not updated its rumble feature since the late 90s, whereas others, like our licensees Microsoft and Nintendo have continued their investments in advanced haptics,” said Immersion Corporation CEO Vic Viegas in a 2017 earnings call.

Immersion is a development firm that specializes in feedback technology. The company has built rumble features for all major console manufacturers, but it’s unclear if the company is involved in the development of the DualSense. GameDaily asked Immersion earlier today but we’ve not gotten a response. The company famously had a legal falling out with Sony that prevented rumble from initially being included in the PS3 controllers, until Sony was forced to pay Immersion more than $90 million.

More recently, in an interview with Built In last month, Immersion chief technology officer Chris Ullrich talked about the potential of the tech in Sony’s next console.

“With the advent of the PlayStation 5 controller, which definitely has advanced haptics, we’re really excited to see what developers are going to do with that capability to make rich and interesting experiences,” Ullrich said. “They’re 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.”

It certainly appears that Sony seems to have turned a corner on haptic feedback with the DualSense. For Lewis Ward, an IDC Research analyst that specializes in the AR and VR sector, that’s a good thing.

“I’m a big believer that gamers want more immersion,” Ward told GameDaily. “That starts with great visuals, but you can also do it at scale though audio and haptics. That way you’re hitting three senses, and if you coordinate visuals, audio, and haptics -- well you can do a better job of making gamers feel like they’re ‘in the game.’ And that’s ultimately what they’re paying for -- a cumulatively emotional experience of an alternate reality.”

Obviously, these comments are based solely on Sony’s blog post, and the effectiveness of the DualSense’s haptics are pure speculation at this point, but Ward emphasized that advances in controller technology has the capability to lend a great deal of immersion to game experiences. Sony’s adoption of haptics for the DualSense controller represents a newfound dedication to making its game worlds feel alive and real. 

At launch, the PlayStation 3’s Sixaxis controller did not feature rumble at all, and the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 rumble feature is not as capable as those found in the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. Now, with the DualSense, Ward says it’s a great time to jump on the bandwagon thanks to recent advances in the technology. It’s up to individual development studios to implement haptics, but Sony has set them up pretty well.

“In terms of haptics, I think they’re getting a lot more subtle,” Ward said. “That has to do with the types of motors and actuators used. Those have come a long way in recent years, so yeah, I think the ‘feel’ of games will get more subtle and varied on both PS5 and Xbox Series X. Not a lot of developers focus on haptics, especially the smaller studios, so I hope the [application programming interfaces], [software development kits, and] other tools that come along with these next-gen systems are easier to use and get exploited further by smaller dev teams.”

Ward said that beyond haptics, audio feedback is also an important element of immersion. The DualSense comes equipped with a built-in microphone array, which will “enable players to easily chat with friends without a headset.” The potential applications of this in the gaming space are many, especially when you take into account Sony’s emphasis on the sound capabilities of the PlayStation 5 in Mark Cerny’s presentation last month. Ward believes that between a greater spatial audio push and the adoption of improved haptics, the PlayStation business is well positioned to offer a new level of immersion, which will be especially noticeable in VR.

“Spatial audio is another biggie,” Ward said. “Especially for VR, if Sony can really nail the unification of haptics, spatial audio and visuals in ‘PSVR 2’ I think that additional layer of immersion is going to excite many more gamers moving forward.”

As always, content will be what drives Sony’s games business, so we’ll have to see how developers use the new features in novel ways in the future. For now, it’s nice to finally get a concrete look at some of Sony’s design philosophy with the PS5. The real test, though, will be when consumers and critics manage to get their hands on the controller, which, if the coronavirus doesn’t rear its ugly head, should be this upcoming holiday.

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Editor-in-Chief

Sam, the Editor-in-Chief of GameDaily.biz, is a former freelance game reporter. He's been seen at IGN, PCGamesN, PCGamer, Unwinnable, and many more. When not writing about games, he is most likely taking care of his two dogs or pretending to know a lot about artisan coffee. Get in touch with Sam by emailing him at sam.desatoff@gamedaily.biz or follow him on Twitter.