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Real Touch in Virtual Reality

Enabling Touch In Virtual Reality
Enabling Touch In Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is a visually immersive experience; Audio adds another layer of enhancement while also providing clues for where to focus our attention. But tactile sensation is still mostly absent from most VR interactions. In this article, we explore some of the innovative ways that touch becomes a reality. The goal is to be able to fully connect with anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.

Los Angeles startup, EmergeNow, is developing an acoustical modulator to project a virtual object. Sound is a pressure wave, and by focusing the output of multiple custom ultrasonic speakers, the inaudible acoustic force can be felt at any point in space within a “cone of interaction” above the device. The initial applications will only work in a small, tightly defined space (for example, the area above a conference room table) but has the advantage of being a more natural approach to interacting with objects and people. The user doesn’t have to wear any gloves or have wires trailing from their hands. Imagine using this technology to touch, hold and manipulate a piece of machinery in VR before sending it to be manufactured? Or holding your child’s hand during a long distance VR call while you are away for a meeting? In education, a toy or a leaf or a sea shell can be passed simultaneously to a single student, a class room or an entire virtual student community.

The more conventional approach is to take what already exists in the 2D gaming world and apply that to VR. Leading in this market is Oculus (owned by Facebook) with their Touch Controllers paired with the Rift Headset. The Touch lets you manipulate all kinds of objects in the virtual space with precision, but doesn’t provide tactile feedback. You can pick up toys, drop blocks, throw firecrackers, and fire laser guns. In many ways, the Touch is similar to the Nintendo Wii Remote and enhanced for VR. The use intuitive, natural hand movements and project your hand positions into the VR realm.

The next approach was to combine fashion with technology to create wearables: gloves, vests and even full body coverings like a wired wetsuit.

The Manus VR Glove uses haptic controllers to provide sensory feedback with vibrations through the fingers, palm and back of hand.

A body suit from Hardlight VR looks like a mash-up of motorcycle gear and body armor. It also uses haptic controllers for feedback. Another company, Teslasuit, is in development of skin suit using electric pulses to stimulate your muscles to mimic tactile sensing. This technology is similar to medical physical therapy which causes muscle contractions.

Using acoustics to generate pressure points to mimic touch is the SubPac M2 Wearable Physical Sound System. Unlike EmergeNow, SubPac builds their sonic emitters into a vest, so the range of feeling is limited. This is more suitable to game playing in VR where the player may be punched, shot or stabbed in the game.

This is still a new area of technology and innovation. Some companies testing out concepts have not been able to bring their ideas to production. The skin-interface body suit from “Skinterface”  used small magnetic actuators in a full body suit to apply point pressure around the body (you can read more and see photos of this 2016 skinterface prototype). Unfortunately, this is one promising company that hasn’t yet made it.

We’ll keep you updated on the latest innovations and products in VR, including new touch gear as it demos at shows and becomes available in the market.Until then …

Which VR accessories have you tried? Please share in the comments …


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