As companies continue to solve virtual reality’s biggest hardware and software challenges, many researchers have been working on next-generation VR peripherals that will enable users to “feel” digital objects — haptic gloves, exoskeletons, and even walking canes have been proposed as possible solutions. Today, a Carnegie Mellon University team announced a new option: a wearable multi-string haptic system that enables users to sense large obstacles, providing a sense of resistance when reaching out to touch objects.

The prototype implementation of “Wireality” relies on a shoulder-mounted lock-and-release device to manage a collection of seven strings attached to the wearer’s fingertips, knuckles, and wrist. Working together, the spring-loaded strings are precisely locked and released in ways that let an outstretched palm feel resistance from walls, curved objects such as railings, and irregular surfaces — fundamentally different from prior approaches that simulate fine textures or rubbery, squishy objects.

Moving beyond replicating sights and sounds is one of the next major frontiers for VR. Japan’s Vaqso developed a VR add-on to simulate smells, and testing continues on tricks to replicate tastes. Today, touch is simulated using small vibrating haptics that can signal modest impacts and interactions, but the CMU solution operates on a grander scale. Users could virtually tour a museum, feeling the walls, using handrails on escalators, and touching sculptures. In the business world, realtors and builders could offer tactile VR tours of homes, while furniture or music stores could let AR users test how large objects such as sofas and pianos fit inside their homes. Car dealerships could also let customers go “hands on” with virtual cars rather than just seeing them.

For the CMU team, the challenge will be convincing people to accept the form factor, which is fairly large and requires the wearer’s arm to be in an upright rather than loose position. That aside, the design has some major practical advantages. The researchers say it can be produced in volume for under $50, perhaps as low as $35. Synchronization between what the user feels and sees is achieved through a computer vision system akin to ones that are already being built into some VR headsets. And the peripheral consumes only 0.024mWh of power per actuation, which is very little energy.


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Regardless of whether end users actually wind up using this multi-string haptic as it’s depicted here, the technology could well inform future wearable designs, or become part of a broader haptic interaction system with both resistance and fine texture simulation for enterprise-class applications. A full paper discussing the Wireality system is available here.

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