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Even if you were separated from family and friends by time or distance, what would it mean if virtual reality could believably offer you a game of catch with them anyway?

The latest VR haptics research from Microsoft — called “PIVOT” — might see this dream realized more believably.

The wrist-strapped accessory put together by Microsoft researchers features a piece that swings into the wearer’s palm for a believable catching and throwing experience in VR.

Today, most VR developers create their own throwing and grasping mechanics, and these can feel different from world to world or controller to controller. The haptic feedback provided by consumer VR hardware today, meanwhile, might be described as little more than buzzing. Still, the effect can be pretty satisfying for certain applications, like pulling back a bowstring or the slight tap of ball against a table tennis paddle. Microsoft’s researchers seem to be proposing a completely different level of believability with PIVOT.

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The new research presented as part of the 2020 ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) is detailed in a paper called “Haptic PIVOT: On-Demand Handhelds in VR” co-authored by Robert Kovacs, Eyal Ofek, Mar Gonzalez Franco, Alexa Fay Siu, Sebastian Marwecki, Christian Holz, and Mike Sinclair. According to a blog post about the work, PIVOT is attached near the wrist, and they said that “we’re able to render the momentum and drag of thrown and caught objects, which are governed by Newton’s laws, including simulating speeds of objects upon reaching the hand: The robotized haptic handle deploys when needed, approaching and finally reaching the hand, creating the feeling of first contact—going from a bare hand to one holding an object—thus mimicking our natural interaction with physical objects in a way that traditional handheld controllers can’t.”

The paper linked above closes with the suggestion that these “results support PIVOT’s potential for future use.” Future work might look at reducing weight of the wearable or adding more motorized pieces to better line up the ball mechanism with the hand. Other sensors could be added as well, like cameras for finger tracking, that might enable more precise interactions.

We’ve seen other research with objects that stretch or transform in shape — could that be applied here to offer different types of in-hand objects which swing into position at just the right time? The paper details other “exploratory” prototypes they’d considered, including a design that featured a retrofitted Windows Mixed Reality controller’s handle that could swing into your grip, and another design with a 3DoF joystick.

If you wore a future PIVOT-based haptic device on your arm, then, you might be able to put on your baseball glove and catch a ball, release it from your glove and then catch it with your other hand to throw it back to someone who isn’t actually in the same place as you.

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