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Virtual reality headsets are already advanced enough to make your brain believe you’re moving through an artificial 3D space, but VR hardware makers are still working to replicate the physical sensations of touch and force — not just in hands, but across users’ bodies. Today, VR glove maker HaptX announced it has won a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to bring haptic feedback to users’ arms and legs, a project that’s been quietly underway for years.

Co-developed by HaptX with research partners from Virginia Tech and the University of Florida, the ForceBot project is meant to yield an enterprise-class, full-body haptic solution, combining a robotic exoskeleton with microfluidic touch feedback. The goal is to let wearers go beyond feeling virtual objects, enabling them to move across virtual terrain while experiencing passive and active constraints on their movements. Initial VR applications are expected to include training for industrial skills, emergency responses, and professional sports.

Digitizing and simulating reality are expected to be among the next decade’s most transformative technologies, whether they’re deployed via virtual, augmented, or mixed reality hardware. HaptX has previously developed industrial haptic gloves that help VR-savvy businesses bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds. Last year, the company partnered with Nissan on gloves that vehicle designers can use when creating cars in VR, and with FundamentalVR for surgical gloves that surgeons can wear for training.

To put the researchers’ latest innovations in perspective, current solutions might let someone grasp a beach ball in VR, while ForceBot could replicate the physicality of walking and swimming at a beach, complete with uneven sand and the viscosity of treading water — all they might lack for is actual moisture. But while it’s easy to imagine someone putting on a haptic body suit for entertainment, and the research could eventually yield dividends for consumers such as VR gamers, that’s not the project’s primary goal.

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The NSF’s funding comes specifically from its National Robotics Initiative, with expectations that the haptic solution will improve human-robot interactions, including robot, cobot (“collaborative robot”), and exoskeleton efficacy. To that end, HaptX says wearers will be able to “intuitively manipulate objects from afar through a robotic avatar,” such that a human pilot could feel tactile and force sensations while remotely moving a robot through a hazardous environment.

HaptX notes that it has “always” had full-body haptics as its “larger vision” beyond gloves, and the company released a photo of a years-old prototype lower-body exoskeleton, alongside previously shown concept imagery of how a full-body system might look. It’s unclear whether the final system will resemble either visual. The NSF grant will fund the ForceBot project for four years, resulting in what the researchers believe will be the world’s first full-body haptic and force feedback system for virtual environments.

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