Fingertip devices let you feel objects in virtual reality
In just a few years, virtual reality has progressed its way into the market from a simple science fiction dream to a tangible piece of technology. While the majority of the VR market owes its storming success from the revolution started by high-end VR company Oculus with its Oculus Rift headset, there is still one area that is being left behind: how the sense of touch and feel can be successfully integrated within virtual reality experiences. A handful of VR companies and startups have begun experimenting with sensory devices that provide tangible physical feedback known as haptic feedback. While they may have encountered partial success, there is still lots of wiggle room left for research and development in this particular area of technology.
To answer this issue, a team of robotics engineers at the University of Siena’s Robotics and Systems Lab in Italy has come up with the fruits of their research effort to design and construct devices that will give virtual reality users a way to “feel” virtual objects as if they were real. The team, spearheaded by Domenico Prattichizzo, has published their findings and the proof-of-concept of their haptic devices in a paper in the IEEE Transactions on Haptics. Prattichizzo and his team developed two distinct yet analogous haptic devices: one fits over the tip of the finger, much like a thimble, while the other is another finger-based device that takes the form of a ring. These devices are equipped with highly precise and sensitive miniaturized electronics such as motion sensors, electric motors, and actuators that work together in harmony to give the sensation of touch in a virtual environment.
The thimble-like finger device features a thin plate that is mechanically controlled by three miniaturized electric motors, and the entire contraption presses against the finger pad. With the plate designed to be thin enough to pick up physical objects, the team was able to replicate the process of touching objects as they are picked up in the virtual world. Users who wears the device will have a feeling of placing their fingers on a seemingly physical object even if there is none. The ring-shaped haptic interface brings similar results on a different medium. It is worn high on the finger, so that the built-in motors can stretch the skin underneath the ring. This stretching motion enables the user to “trick” his brain in feeling objects paired with visual feedback on the virtual environment. The result is a sensation of touch without actually touching anything.
These devices are seen to benefit a broad range of real-life applications, from medicine to communications and even mainstream consumer tech. Applications that can be fitted with these haptic devices include critical surgical tasks that require extremely high precision to determine minute deviations in the patient’s tissue, sharing intimate contact via virtual touches over video calls or chat, and storing tactile memories of life events to be played back over and over again from any portable device. While these devices promise a lot for the future of virtual reality haptics, improvements such as adding texture to the experience can be made possible. Prattichizzo’s team are also looking forward to create armband versions of the tech for rendering sensations of lifting objects in virtual reality.