This New Technology Simulates Feel of Solid Objects in Virtual Reality

This New Technology Simulates Feel of Solid Objects in Virtual Reality

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This is it. You and your fellow gamers have reached the dragon’s treasure at last. Within the fantasy world of your favorite computer game, you run your character’s hand over the rough texture of the chest’s wooden surface, then lift the lid (it’s heavy) to reveal a pile of sparkling golden coins. While you enjoy the sensation of sinking your hands into the golden hoard, your two teammates give each other a resounding high-five.

Today, the applications of virtual reality (VR) are endless; VR has penetrated every application from gaming and military training to student education. It can help to treat mental health problems such as PTSD, alcoholism, and depression, and prevent patients undergoing treatments or dental procedures from experiencing high levels of pain.

Recruiters and HR teams use the technology to immerse job candidates or existing employees in hypothetical work scenarios, while medical students can use VR to gain valuable work experience such as conducting certain surgical procedures.

Adding 3D Touch, or Haptic Feedback, to VR

Haptic feedback, also known as kinaesthetic communication or 3D touch, is the use of vibration or physical resistance to engage a person’s sense of touch. In VR, it effectively adds a physical dimension to the simulated world in which someone is immersed.

VR gamers will be especially familiar with the use of haptic feedback, which encompasses simple things such as a remote controller vibrating when a car crashes or a steering wheel jerking out of control. But the potential for haptic feedback extends so much further than these basic functions, and several tech companies are currently exploring the possibilities. 

Late last year, Teslasuit introduced the Teslasuit Glove, which will allow users to feel virtual textures. The device, which is intended for use in training and medical rehabilitation, can create the impression that the user is touching or holding an object.

Meanwhile, design students at the National Taipei University of Technology have created a haptic feedback device called LiquidMask, to be used alongside a VR headset. The mask simulates the feeling of being underwater by pumping liquid around the mask and, in a scuba diving simulation, will get colder as the user descends deeper into the ocean. Users will even be able to “feel” schools of fish swim by.

Leveraging Haptic Feedback at Carnegie Mellon University

The latest innovation leveraging VR and haptic feedback comes from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Researchers at CMU have designed a VR headset that uses strings, instead of VR gloves, attached to the user’s hands and fingers to simulate the feel of obstacles and heavy objects. VR gloves can effectively imitate the sensation of grasping an object but are unable to simulate the feeling of reaching out and touching a flat, hard surface, such as a wall or an item of furniture.

CMU’s shoulder-mounted device overcomes this challenge by locking the strings in place when the wearer’s hand is close to a virtual wall. It also allows the user to feel the contours of a virtual sculpture or even give a high-five to a virtual character in a game.

“Elements such as walls, furniture, and virtual characters are key to building immersive virtual worlds, and yet contemporary VR systems do little more than vibrate hand controllers,” said Chris Harrison, assistant professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

The device is also equipped with a Leap Motion sensor to track hand and finger motions. With a string attached to each finger, a user can reach out to touch a virtual object. As they do so, the strings will unravel but when the user’s fingers collide with a virtual object they will lock in an appropriate sequence. Harrison explains the tech results in the feeling of cupping complex shapes with a very realistic sensation.

Cathy Fang, a student at CMU, said, “I think the experience creates surprises, such as when you interact with a railing and can wrap your fingers around it. It’s also fun to explore the feel of irregular objects, such as a statue.”

Examining the Future of Haptic Feedback in VR

While the use of string to create haptic feedback in virtual worlds is not a new concept, this device uses spring-loaded retractors instead of motors to control the strings, which makes CMU’s version lighter, easier to wear, and more energy- and cost-efficient. 

The headset weighs under 10 ounces and, at a mass-produced level, is expected to cost less than $50. The device was scheduled to make its debut at ACM’s Computer-Human Interaction conference earlier this year, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19 closures.

When the time is right, the headset will likely be used for VR games, visits to virtual museums, and even virtual shopping in a furniture store.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

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