Shake hands with an avatar, feel the rain: Actronika, this French start-up that makes the virtual sensitive

Empty. The goblet in your hand is empty. However, on the tip of your arm, you thought you felt it poured water – a video broadcast misled you on the computer screen by showing you, precisely, a carafe pouring into a small cardboard glass. Error: at the bottom of the container, nothing, despite the vibration your fingers see.

The rest of the video is sequential magnetism, always more refined. Are we pouring rice into the virtual cup? You hear the slight crackle of this flow and you feel an infinity of tiny vibrations but, again, you are fooled. The tour de force is even more astonishing when it is a small ball that falls into the filmed goblet before rolling under it. The circular motion is restored, your knuckles curse it. And still nothing under the glass.

Generators of gentle vibrations

Welcome to Actronika, a French start-up that is one of the pioneers in the small emerging world of haptics. Haptic? In Greek origin, the word refers to everything related to touch. Having developed tiny motors that generate subtle vibrations and computer intelligence to properly modify them, Actronika is full of projects to make virtuality more convincing. Starting with a certainty: after hearing and sight, the new frontier is pressing, “One of the most trusted senses”explanation by Damien Faux, head of R&D for the small company of approximately twenty people based in Paris in the 19th century.e borough. “It’s a very deep meaning, always on alert and returning us to our state of Homo sapiens”abounds Gilles Meyer, serial entrepreneur who co-founded the company in 2016 and runs it today.

True, the idea is not entirely new. The most well -known example: game console controllers have long produced vibrations that accentuate immersion. But a new step is being taken. Until recently, computer power did not allow fast enough signal processing. “Since 2015 almostGilles Meyer believesmakes it possible for microprocessors to go below the bar a hundredth of a second between the sequence and the effect produced, ensuring a true synchronization effect “. And let’s consider the different uses.

Gilles Meyer, co-founder of Actronika, on May 15 in Paris.© Dorian Prost for Les Echos Weekend

Another development, even more recent, that is increasing interest in society: the emergence of the metaverse. Since Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook Meta, the curiosity of the general public has been rising for anything that could heighten in a virtual world. Not too far away and sinking into the nightmare of fully virtualized life, Damien Faux said “In a post-covid world, one would think that some virtual social interaction could foster sensations”. Took a friend’s avatar in your arms, shook hands with him … so many “movements” that, one day, could translate into real physical sensations.

This is the essence of Actronika’s core product, where the company aims to demonstrate the extent of its knowledge. Thanks to crowdfunding pre-orders, the start-up offers to market a jacket called Skinetic. Equipped with about twenty small actuators -the famous motors that generate vibrations -, it should allow, at first, to dive deep into the game. Again, the prototype allows you to live a dramatic experience.

Leisure and automobile industry

This time, we wore virtual reality mirrors to immerse ourselves in a minimalist setting where weapons come out. You were shot by a gun from the right? You feel the impact on your side. Does the bazooka on your left do the same? The shock, stronger, is seen on the other side. Is it starting to rain? Here are many small drops that fall on the shoulders, or on the back if you lean forward, the chest if you lift the head. As for the last, massive explosion, it’s shaking your entire rib cage.

“The gaming world should allow us to put the jacket on the market, with the idea of ​​expanding the public”declares Damien Faux. “This jacketadded Gilles Meyer, allows us to fully demonstrate our technology. » Beyond the video game, it is a wider range of targeted entertainment. In unexpected applications caused by vibrations: “We can even imagine that the hearing impaired listen to a philharmonic concert and hear music better thanks to bone conduction.»

In the meantime, less mainstream and somewhat unexpected applications are emerging. In a small technical room, Gwendal Fernet is busy around a 3D printer. This mechatronics engineer is testing, for a car brand he will not disclose, new haptics functions. The automotive sector, after skepticism, will now soon be interested in this technology. “At first people thought we were showing them gimmicks, asking us what haptics were, but now all the manufacturers are racing to enrich the feel of the cockpit”explained Adrien Vives, the commercial director.

The device is already well-known: the steering wheel that shakes on the highway when the vehicle changes direction. Future device: the driver’s seat that vibrates, to the left, to warn of a danger linked to the glass blind spot. Another goal set by engineers in the sector: on dashboards, which have become large touch screens, create a feeling of a click under the finger to give the user confirmation that he has indeed started a command . Even the screen, in reality, doesn’t move even an iota. “Touching makes it possible to directly reach deep emotions and, in this particular situation, to put the user in confidence”summarizes Adrien Vives.

The axis of luxury

The luxury sector is another emerging area of ​​development not originally seen by the pioneers of haptics to come: pressing seems to be one of the ways that is likely to enrich the customer experience in the area. of sales, or even related to products. Haptics can also renew the world of professional training. For example with workers who manage to put fresh paint on vehicles leaving the factory. A task that requires a lot of gestural precision, and is able to mimic Actronika.

Equipped with a virtual reality helmet and the same dummy paint gun, apprentices practice applying colors evenly, feeling the real motion of the gun … without wasting a milliliter of paint. Finally, medicine can also benefit from this new discipline, particularly by making it possible to restore sensations to a surgeon who will perform surgery through a robotic device.

The competition? It takes different forms. There will be “a dozen artists in the world”, according to Gilles Meyer. In Germany, Lofelt has developed headphones that add physical sensations to music in real time. In the United Kingdom, Ultraleap is able to create sensations thanks to many small speakers that broadcast ultrasonic waves. In South Korea, the company BHaptics also makes a jacket that lets you immerse yourself in a virtual universe. In Grenoble, Hap2U offers several technologies, specifically touch screens. Signs that the discipline is not set to remain confidential: Samsung and Apple have invested. Apple likes it too “a hundred people working full time on hapticsassured Giller Meyer. Apple is the Rolls, the only really impressive big group in this technology. »

Actronika’s Skinetic jacket will first be made in other European countries than France or Turkey.

Actronika’s Skinetic jacket will first be made in other European countries than France or Turkey.© Dorian Prost for Les Echos Weekend

“Competition is on the rise, but so is the cake”, summarizes Adrien Vives. Although Actronika’s small patented motors are among the most versatile, making it possible to cover a frequency range from 10 to 500 Hertz, it is largely in its software processing that the French start-up expects. to make a difference. “We were fortunate to believe in haptics from the very beginning, which allowed us to develop software capable of playing complex and configurable effects”Gilles Meyer believes, that the company has just been awarded the Palme d’or in the field of new technologies by the Comité de France.

There remains one hurdle that the company needs to overcome: shifting production. At this stage, small “actuators” were almost systematically produced in China. Gilles Meyer did not completely give up, as part of the Skinetic jacket project, which returned its production to France: “I am 52 years old and I want to do something useful for my country.» In itself, the goal does not seem unrealistic: “There are regions of France where square meters are not expensive and where workers can easily get used to it, especially in the field of technical fabrics.” But the procedures in France “take a while”, lamented Marina Crifar, communications manager. Result: the first batch of jackets, expected for the end of the year, can be made in other countries in Europe or in Turkey.

Convincing private investors remains a way of the cross, Gilles Meyer observes. “Typically, they prefer to fund smartphone apps and business models based on recurring revenues, rather than an industrial company that, every year, has to climb Annapurna.” Will France’s 2030 plan change the situation? Gilles Meyer called for a start: “If we really want to be re -industrialized, we have to climb into a gear.” Because the metaverse and virtual reality will also pass … the factories …

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