Strap on an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and what you see is so lifelike it’s almost scary.
Companies are getting closer and closer to mastering visuals in virtual reality, but there’s still one major hurdle: reproducing the sense of touch.
As Facebook-owned Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash said, “There’s no hope of producing the haptics of the real world because there’s no feasible way to reproduce real world kinematics.”
Essentially, haptic technology based on touch has yet to be developed so that hands can sense and respond to virtual interactions.
Companies are attempting to address the problem, though.
For example, Oculus Rifit with its Oculus Touch controllers. But as we have noted before, holding clunky controllers while in virtual reality is a bit of a distraction.
Eventually, people will be able to visit the The Void — a Utah-based virtual reality center that uses effects like wind and water to make the VR experience more life-like. But that’s not exactly a solution for someone hoping to be an everyday, in-home user.
One researcher, though, has created an ingenious way to implement the sense of touch in virtual reality.
Pedro Lopes, a researcher at the the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) lab at Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute, recently developed a two-part device that enables a person to feel impact while wearing a VR headset.
The device, dubbed “Impacto,” is worn around your arm or leg and creates a sensation of collision, like the feeling of a soccer ball hitting your foot or a person punching your arm.
One component of the wireless device provides a very weak, vibration sensation — similar to most haptic devices, like an Xbox controller that vibrates if you drove a race car into a barrier in a video game.
But where Impacto becomes interesting is with the second component, which puts two electrodes over your muscle to the same electrical muscle stimulation you’d get during physical therapy for muscle fatigue.
“When you combine the two, your brain gets tricked — it’s sort of an illusion,” Lopes told Tech Insider. “Your brain attributes that what caused your muscles to move was that touch sensation.”
Impacto knows to deliver electrical simulation using the Xbox Kinect tracking camera. The camera can see if you experience some kind of impact while in VR and trigger Impacto to deliver the vibrations.
“Most of us have felt vibration to some extent, whether our phone vibrates or its an Xbox controller,” he said. “Impacto is a completely different sensation because it’s way closer to reality. The moment you’re in VR it actually feels like impact because of the muscle stimulation.”
Lopes’ team does not plan to commercialize Impacto. Rather, Lopes said he hopes the research helps inform how wearables can be used to better develop the sense of touch.
Watch Impacto in action:
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