[Startup Interview] CEO Gwak Kiuk of “bHaptics”, a CES2021 recognized company developing VR/AR haptic suits, TactSuit

The company we will meet today is bHaptics, the company who won the ‘CES 2021 Innovation Award’ for its haptic suit called Tactsuit X40 at CES 2021. bHaptics innovated the VR industry after developing the next generation haptic suit by combining VR and the sense of touch, and is well-known abroad.

Let’s meet CEO Gwak Kiuk of bHaptics!

Can you briefly introduce bHaptics?

Hello, we are bHaptics, a company creating a world where reproducing and delivering not only the visual and auditory but also tactile sensations is possible. Our vision is “Bring Haptics to Your Life”, and our goal is to commercialize the haptic technology HW/SW research and development to the B2C level so that our devices and services can be used in everyday life around the world.

Delivering tactile sensations remotely is thinking outside the box! Developing both hardware and software haptic technology is one of the strengths of bHaptics as well.

How did bHaptics decide on this item as the startup product?

One of the fields I was researching during my Ph.D. was Haptic, and the prospects of VR after Facebook acquired Oculus in 2015 was a big reason as well. However, the main reason was my recklessness because I was not aware of how difficult and frightening starting a business was.

Out of the various items we considered, Haptic devices were the most unfamiliar to the public and should be developed overseas rather than in Korea. The market we could refer to for devices and services was also unclear. And yet, I thought if we make a new device that people can use, we could directly contribute to the development of the world as engineers. Although it will be difficult, let’s try while we’re young!

I believe there was a prospect that the VR market will become active in 2015 but the hype went down. Recently, more customers are looking for VR due to COVID-19, and the interest in VR/AR markets increased as VR-related programs aired on TV. We look forward to bHaptics contributions to the VR market.

The haptics field is not familiar. Can you explain about the field?

Haptics is delivering information from machine to human, or human to machine through sensations of touch. For example, moving chairs in 4D movie theaters is a haptic feedback device. If we can also send an emoticon in KakaoTalk that also delivers vibrations, this is also a haptic feedback.

In the case of audio and visual sensations, this information can be stored and delivered to a level that is similar to what people actually see and hear through cameras, microphones, monitors and speakers. However, there is a lack of research on touch sensation, and haptic devices and applications have not been commercialized yet.

bHaptics’s device will have more demand because it is not a simple VR device, but a haptic suit that allows users to detect touch sensations. People usually consider visual and auditory sensations, but overlook touch. However, more research on haptic needs to be done. The challenge of bHaptics on haptics will broaden the understanding of the field.

What is unique about bHaptics TactSuit from existing haptic suits?

Our Tactsuit may not be very different from existing haptic suits because they have not been commercialized yet. However previously, 2~6 complicated and expensive vibration motors were attached to the front and back of the suit to create vibration waveforms with audio signals. Our TactSuit uses 40 relatively cheaper vibration motors that significantly improves spatial resolution and that detects not only audio signals, but also other digital signals using Bluetooth.

Through this change, TactSuit evolved not into am independently operating hardware, but a platform that adjusts to the software controlling it.

People who are not interested in this field are probably unaware of haptic suits. To summarize, existing haptic suits were more complex and expensive in the past, but bHaptics’ TactSuit can be controlled by Bluetooth and increased variability. The biggest advantage of TactSuit is the ability to adapt to various software.

bHaptics recently won the innovation award for TactSuit X40. What are some distinctions of TactSuit, and what has changed since receiving the award?

I believe TactSuit X40 was awarded the innovation award not only because of the innovation in hardware, but also for its compatibility with various software.

Our greatest strength is that our device is easily compatible with various contents due to our SDK. We are working hard to integrate our device with more contents through various software support such as an editor that easily creates spatial and temporal patterns using 40 vibration motors, visual scripting-based plugins that can be applied to various game engines, audio-to-haptic algorithms that transforms real-time sound content output into haptic patterns.

The connection and integration between software and hardware is becoming more important recently. As CEO Gwak mentioned, TactSuit itself is a hardware, but won the innovation award at CES 2021 due to its high compatibility with various software. We believe the compatibility to various contents and game engines became a positive factor.

bHaptics is more well-known abroad, and overseas revenue is the main sales. What are some ways to increase revenue in the domestic market?

There were many attempts but VR has not been commercialized yet in Korea. bHaptics is planning to launch consoles, and PC games along with VR. Although it will be difficult to overcome the difference between the overseas and domestic market and the number of customers, we believe the number of domestic customers will increase as we expand our contents and platform. Especially in Korea and China, we are considering connecting our devices to PC games and renting devices in PC rooms. We will be able to speed this process once COVID-19 is over.

Renting devices in PC rooms seems like the best way to promote, but the COVID-19 situation is rather unfortunate. It is also difficult to commercialize products because of the price. Nevertheless, we expect the VR industry will boom if VR game YouTubers and VR devices become more well-known.

There aren’t many hardware startups in Korea, and it is difficult to succeed as one. How did bHaptics overcome these difficulties, and how should hardware startups proceed?

All startups are difficult, but starting a hardware startup is more difficult than starting a software startup because of the lack thereof.

It is ambiguous whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage, but Korea is more of a manufacturing powerhouse. Starting a business in Korea has clear advantages than starting in the U.S./Europe with the same idea, in terms of hardware manufacturing. I didn’t know this when I first started the business, but it was really helpful to rule out competitors. In addition, hardware startups are more funded by the government.

Thus, if you want to start a hardware startup, I want to say that the domestic is not a bad option. The current software boom is a result of the smartphone hardware, so I hope more hardware startups arise.

However, in order to gain competitiveness, it is essential to note that not only hardware but also software must be differentiated from other companies. The hardware itself must be compelling, but there should be an extra barrier of software that can’t be overcome by others. In addition, the hardware will be more competitive if it can acquire and utilize data of users that can only be done at the hardware level. The essence is a hardware startup, but the company should internalize hardware design and planning, manufacture with domestic partners, and build software capabilities equivalent to software startups.

It may be difficult to start a hardware startup because there aren’t many hardware startups in Korea, but this can become an advantage. Utilizing government funding for hardware startups and gaining competitiveness will help become a secure company. bHaptics successfully gained its competitive edge, and is becoming well-known and secure abroad and in Korea as well. In addition, it is important to accompany software and hardware.

Can you give a word to KAIST students interested in starting a business?

To be honest, I thought 3 years would be enough to see the end of this business when I first started. It took me long to realize and accept how naïve I was back then. There are many other instances where expectations differ from reality. To overcome and survive these, one must have a set goal to hypnotize himself. Starting one thing is easy, but it is difficult to maintain. If you can survive and persist, time and world will give you an opportunity one day. It may be a long and difficult journey, but I suggest startups to those who want to contribute to the world. You can do it!

Beginning something is difficult, but ending it is another process. However, there is a means and end only if there is a start! Because bHaptics started a challenge, we were able to promote the field of Haptics and be recognized in CES2021. If you are hesitant on starting a business, I recommend trying it.

What is bHaptics’ next and ultimate goal?

We will continue to develop our haptic devices and software to deliver not only audio-visual but also tactile senses remotely to everyone around the world. In the short-term, we will develop various software services that can bring users to one interface and develop new devices. In the long term, this will become a standard in touch sensation delivery, which is important in the metabus era.

With the expansion of the VR market, bHaptics will become more influential in the market. Already well-known abroad, there will be more domestic customers looking for haptic suits, and the expansion to PC and console fields will create an environment where VR can be enjoyed with simplified haptics suits. The smooth integration of hardware and software will allow more realistic haptic sensations and lead to development of new devices. We look forward to bHaptics playing a pivotal role in the metabus era and open a new horizon for VR.

This was CEO Gwak Kiuk of bHaptics!