Virtual reality technology is rapidly advancing towards a future where we will be able not only to see and interact with the environment using remote controllers but also experience the sense of touch. There are a couple different approaches to making this a reality already and we are exited to see what's instore for us next!

Researchers design flexible membrane to make VR tactile

Imagine being able to pet a cat or dog in VR or hold someone’s hands. Or you could be able to feel around a table or a statue. You could grab an apple from a tree and even feel rain on your hands. Well you are in luck since this technology is already being developed and is showing great progress. Of course, the desire to create something that could let us enjoy all of our senses in VR has been there since the advent of virtual reality. But only now we are starting to slowly gain better traction.

Generally, there have been 3 different types of approaches with a 4th still being quite experimental when it comes to giving us the sense of touch in VR. Also, if these succeed we might be able to experience even smells in VR. But not only that psychology research suggests we could even help the visually impaired see using their ears in VR. Of course, we are still far from reaching that goal but at least it gives us great hope for the future of VR and its application in the field of medical treatment.

The 3 different approaches to letting us have the sense of touch in VR are the following: special gloves which can contract and give you the sensation of touch. Strings attached to your fingers and hand from a device on your shoulder that also helps you experience the sensation of touch. And the last approach is to create a “skin-like” membrane that could vibrate and activate the correct nerves to give you the same inputs as the feeling of touching something.

Let’s talk touch “string theory”

It may not be the most innovative idea but it does seem to be the more immediately practical one. Basing its design on a more mechanical approach to touching things the new research from Carnegie Mellon University(CMU) aims to unlock the challenge of simulating touch in VR. The device they are experimenting with uses multiple strings attached to the hand and fingers to simulate the feel of obstacles and objects. The strings are also attached to a device on the shoulder which will pull on them the moment the user touches an obstacle creating the illusion of touch.

Girl using virtual reality with a special string gear in order to simulate touch in a virtual world so she can touch a statue

The shoulder-mounted device is constructed with the idea of using spring-loaded strings to lessen the weight. It also consumes minimal battery power and maintains low costs. This was made to solve the problem of other haptic devices with strings that had motors assigned to them. This device would also weigh only around 300 grams and have a very low cost of mass-production of about $50. With these aspects in mind the researchers at CMU find their device to be a lot more realistic than other methods being researched. Chris Harrison, an assistant professor at CMU’s Human-computer interaction institute explained how the interaction with elements such as walls and furniture is essential for an immersive VR experience which cannot be given by the current devices which do little more than vibrate.

Some are skeptical of this new approach stating that the immersion we want from this new equipment will be brought down by the use of too much hardware compared to what we have now. But the researchers at CMU remain optimistic in their approach being of the mentality that people should not stop innovating a product just because the prototypes might seem impractical at first.

The feeling of a glove

While the second and third approaches both use gloves in some sense or another the technology is still different. This second type of VR touch research is already quite popular with numerous companies trying their hands at it. It is called a haptic glove and it is still mainly mechanical but with more ease-of-use in mind as well as a better experience. One of the bigger names, if not the biggest, to research the potential of haptic gloves is Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

A glove which can let you experience the sense of touch in virtual reality

The glove is comprised of 15 ridged inflatable plastic pads called actuators. The pads are arranged to fit along the wearer’s palm, the underside of their fingers, and their fingertips. When used in VR a specialized program adjusts the level of inflation, creating pressure on different parts of your hand, thus mimicking the feeling of touch when you place your hand on a surface or object. This new tech in robotics seeks to replace bulky motors and/or equipment with tiny air valves making the prototype much more accessible.

Simulated touch is not by any means a new phenomenon. The controllers easily available now are set to vibrate in different ways depending on the user’s interactions in VR. But the People at Reality Labs researching VR and immersion don’t believe such devices are sufficient for integrating the sensation of touch into a computer-generated world. They also predict the in the future these devices, including the VR headset will get smaller and more practical. Research into VR headsets is already making leeway towards VR googles, a slim version which will be a lot more comfortable to wear.

Haptic skin for full body immersion?

If just touching with your hand is not enough for you to get immersed into a virtual world, then maybe a special suit made of haptic skin could be the answer. VR researchers are working in tandem with psychologists to find out more about how our skin receives input and is transmitted to the brain. The point of this research is to find a way to simulate the electrical signals that our brain receives by the use of a special membrane. This membrane could in theory cover the entire human body if need be so that you can even simulated how it feel to kick a ball in VR.

The technology behind haptic skin, a membrane that allows you to experience the sense of touch in virtual reality

This device incorporates a distributed array of 32individually programmable, millimeter-scale actuators, each of which generates a discrete sense of touch at a corresponding location on the skin. Each actuator resonates most strongly at 200 cycles per second, where the skin exhibits maximum sensitivity. The researchers at Northwestern University continue to explain how when this device is connected to a touch screen tablet or laptop you can use it to feel on your skin in real time the way you touch the screen. For example, if you draw an x with your finger on the touch screen you will also feel it on your skin where the patch is applied.

The applications for such a device are too numerous to count. Especially now when remote working seems to take precedent, the ability to interact in some way or form with colleagues and/or work material is becoming more and more critical. Of course, let’s not discount the many uses it could have for treating health or mental health issues. For phobias such an innovation would do wonders towards making patients touch the things they are afraid off in a safe and controlled environment. Gaming could also be elevated to the next level although it might not feel that good when the impact of punching something in VR is transmitted into reality and really feels like a punch.

What’s instore for the future?

While the science on and surrounding virtual reality is still in its incipient stage at this point, Meta throwing big money at this project now  could spell trouble for starter uppers but researches, nevertheless, continue to innovate and find new way to implement existing technology into VR or invent completely new tech. The haptic skin could solve so many real-life problems by integrating them into VR in an immersive way but the technology for it is still in its incipient stage. It could take years and years until haptic gloves could be as common as VR headsets today.

With this in mind some researchers are looking at a completely sci-fi solution. What if we could bypass all of the mechanical issues and gears and simply trick our brain to feel everything we see in VR is real and feels real. Even though this may seem the domain of science fiction for some, researchers in psychology and neurology are learning more and more about how the brain works and what stimulates it every day. It may sound scary for some but imagine if you could have a device implanted directly into your skull which could transmit signals to your brain, signals that interpret the sensations of touch or any other sensation we want to feel in a VR world. The possibility to harm someone using this kind of device is also a great risk when considering this approach but it won’t stop people from innovating and thinking about it.

futuristic looking virtual reality headset and technology which lets you see and interact with virtual objects around you

For instance, did you know that right now there is a device that can be implanted into a person’s skull like an antenna which can help color-blind people perceive colors by “hearing” them. The device uses another of our senses to translate another directly into the brain. If that is a possibility that why not translate a computer-generated world directly into our brain complete with all of our senses.

The future is always scary at first and conspiracy theories that may or not turn out to be true in the future about mind control will keep some people at bay when it comes to such technological innovations. But whether we like or not the future will happen, with or without us. Some people will disregard any political, societal, cultural or even moral constrains when it comes to their research and it is these people that for better or worse can sometimes bring us into the future. Let’s just hope that us as a society will promote safe innovation and not push aside ideas because of some arbitrary objections since those ideas will then take root in fringe and dangerous hands.

icon shadow for icon representing person
Julian Sanda
Read first
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
OR join with:

We are on Instagram