A VR/XR haptic suit that offers more than just an approximation.
If you have ever considered buying a haptic vest for your VR device, you might have heard of the OWO Vest. If not, it is a gaming-first wearable shirt that creates feedback using electrical stimulation.
Sensations can range from sharp and precise, for example, the high-energy impulse of a puncture or stab, to more general, such as the feeling of wind, or the heaviness of your virtual backpack, to even something as abstract as being low on health. And yes, if you really want to, you can take it beyond your personal comfort zone and into the realm of what people describe as pain.
OWO already made headlines at CES, but now their haptic suit is finally in production and available for order at $499. Unfortunately, there is an order queue and you must wait for 30–90 days for your vest to arrive. OWO’s biggest competitor, B*Haptics, offers their vest in two versions priced at $299 and $499, and they ship immediately. So is OWO better enough to justify the extra waiting time? Perhaps yes, but let me elaborate.
Comfort & Ease of Use
I had a chance to try the OWO suit at AWE 2023. Putting on the vest was easy. Within the vest are embedded high-conductivity electrodes that send impulses to your muscles. You do not have to fiddle with the electrodes or place them on your body individually. As long as the vest hugs your body tightly, everything should work automatically.
What this means, however, is that the shirt does have to touch the user’s skin directly. This can be problematic for various reasons. First, sharing the vest with your friends seems out of the question, which for a $500 device is a bit disappointing. Second, even though at AWE 2023 all the vests were cleaned and disinfected, many visitors still had understandable reservations. Having to go to a changing room, especially at a public convention, is not something most visitors are used to.
Thus, while in terms of setup, the OWO Vest is no more complicated or time-consuming than the Tactsuit (B*haptics), there is a degree of oddness that comes with the territory.
It is worth noting that there’s a new Assassin’s Creed-themed suit currently available for purchase. It’s the same OWO vest, but with a more custom look.
The old blue and white shirt, which I personally found quite slick, is no longer available. However, the standard black version remains on offer for those who aren’t fans of the Assassin’s Creed design.
What I immediately noticed was how surprisingly wide the range of haptic sensations provided by the vest was — pulse, recoil, hug, hit. When it comes to intensity, I decided to go all in and set the power between 35 and 40 V (I was told that the average is 7 to 15 V). While I wouldn’t normally choose such high settings, given the time constraints, I was eager to see just how intense the vest could feel and how it would handle what I’d consider my personal upper limits.
Interestingly, even at such high settings, the feeling was not what I would describe as typical pain. If anything, it’s perhaps more like discomfort akin to mini muscle spasms rather than stings.
Despite its short-sleeved design, the suit can emulate trigger and wrist feedback. I had a chance to try the OWO Vest with both their proprietary drone demo and with a well-known VR game, Pistol Whip, and came away buzzing with adrenaline from all the muscle stimulation.
The OWO vest is accompanied by a mobile app that lets users customize the intensity of each electrode individually. If I had more time, I would definitely tweak and play around with those options as I feel that having intense high-voltage settings makes sense for the upper body and in games where you are being mainly attacked or threatened but for other sensations (such as pulling the trigger), high voltage made little sense.
In my case, since I set all sensations to a uniform level of 35 V and 40 V, every time I pulled the triger in Pistol Whip my index finger finger received a high-intensity zap. By the end of the map, I found myself unwilling to keep shooting. It’s obvious that for such basic interactions, low voltage would fully suffice. Users might opt to set some electrodes to high voltage and others to low.
Speaking of the OWO app, it featured a showcase mode, allowing me to try out various haptic sensations and combinations of sensations that the vest is capable of producing including various abstract pulsating or vibrating patterns. These can be quite elaborate and make good use of the electrodes, creating a convincing feeling of various sensations that are not just zaps and shocks.
The OWO vest’s haptic solution left me impressed. The intensity definitely works towards enhancing the immersion, making the in-game elements more visceral, and in turn, more realistic. The drones from OWO’s proprietary demo suddenly became much more menacing and intimidating. They even seemed to appear improved graphically — my mind was willing to fill in the blanks and appreciate these low-poly models as more detailed than they truly were. These perceptions are all mind tricks created by our internal fight or flight system but it was quite interesting to experience that firsthand.
This brings us to the main question whether the OWO suit is worth $500 and is it better than Tactsuit. There is no obvious or definitive answer to that. In my opinion, the OWO Suit has the potential to become a popular consumer vest for XR gaming but there’s no denying that its premise remains unconventional and quirky.
It can easily simulate various unpleasant feelings or sensations which is just something you cannot get with Tactsuit no matter how many motors B*haptics incorporates into their vest.
At the same time, even a slightly uncomfortable experience might not be something the mainstream consumer is interested in pursuing. While getting shot in VR is not supposed to feels pleasant a lot of users are ok with a less-than-realistic approximation that Tactsuit or Subpack provides. You can lower OWO’s intensity all the way down, making feedback subtle and agreeable, but that in a way defeats its purpose. Tactsuit or Subpack can provide subtle and agreeable feedback just as well without you having to take your shirt off.
It seems OWO is designed to appeal to those willing to push their comfort zones a bit. How widespread this willingness is, and how large is the gamer group that shares it, all of that remains to be seen.