Engineers at the University of Utah have developed a new game controller that takes feedback to new levels by physically stretching the skin on the tips of the thumbs.

Developed by William Provancher, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, and his students, the controller uses a pair of 'tactor' surfaces in the centre of each analogue stick to provide a novel form of haptic feedback.

Unlike traditional controllers, which limited feedback to vibration, the new controller is claimed to be able to provide a vastly greater range of feedback to the player. Games used with the prototype include a first-person shooter in which the tactor surfaces move back to mimic impacts, an ocean simulation in which horizontal motion is used to simulate waves and a fishing game in which subtle feedback tells the user when to strike.

'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,' claimed Provancher of the invention. 'I'm hoping we can get this into production when the next game consoles come out in a couple of years.'

A study carried out by Provancher and students Ashley Guinan, Rebecca Koslover and Nathaniel Caswell suggests that the feedback works even though the user's thumbs are aligned inward when using the controller. Previously, prototypes had required that the thumbs be aligned in a straight direction to match up with the tactor pads.

The hand-held controller joins a previous prototype of Provancher's which took the form of a steering wheel which used the same skin-stretching technology to provide feedback on when to turn the wheel. During testing of that earlier device, Provancher proved that touch-based feedback can provide useful information even while other more obvious forms of feedback such as audio or imagery are present.

Thus far Provancher has not indicated whether any commercial manufacturers are interested in licensing the technology, which can be seen in operation in this demonstration video.