New fiber optic sensor glove could let users touch things in VR

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Researchers want to use fiber optics to let users touch things in VR.
Image: Cornell University

The visual aspect of current virtual reality (VR) hardware continues to improve. However, it can be difficult for users to feel fully immersed in virtual worlds when they don’t have any tactile feedback.

Imagine how much cooler it would be if you could reach out to pick something up in VR and actually feel it in your hand.

A new pair of fiber optic gloves could make that possible. Researchers from Cornell University have designed a sensor that tracks the hands with extreme precision. This makes it possible to add tactile feedback to VR experiences. The approach could help make VR much more immersive.

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The team’s research is published in the journal Science.

Touch and Feel

Researchers have been experimenting with a number of different ways to integrate tactile sensations into VR. Although almost all of them use a glove, the approaches vary from haptic sensors to mechanical wires to the new fiber optics.

Cornell researchers designed a glove that has stretchable fiber optic sensors running along the length of each finger. When the user bends their fingers, the sensor gets deformed, thereby registering exactly what motion happened. This feedback can be relayed to a computer for real-time processing and then compared to the user’s position in the VR environment.

Movement isn’t the only thing that the sensors track, however. Thanks to the sensitive nature of fiber optics, the glove can also detect changes in pressure and force.

It’s worth noting that the current technology is still pretty simple. The glove itself is 3D-printed and is only equipped with Bluetooth, a battery, and some basic circuits. However, it is extremely promising.

Lead researcher Rob Shepherd says, “Right now, sensing is done mostly by vision. We hardly ever measure touch in real life. This skin is a way to allow ourselves and machines to measure tactile interactions in a way that we now currently use the cameras in our phones. It’s using vision to measure touch. This is the most convenient and practical way to do it in a scalable way.”

Immersive Uses

Although the technology still has a long way to go, it isn’t hard to envision the uses for it. VR is the most obvious candidate. By accurately tracking the position of a user’s fingers, the glove would know when they are “touching” something in the VR environment.

From there, it would be possible to integrate accurate haptic feedback into the glove that allows the user to feel the object. Even if it isn’t a perfect replication, the addition of tactile feedback would make VR seem much more lifelike.

However, that isn’t the only application for this technology. Researchers also believe that it could give robots a more complete view of the world.

The combination of pressure and positional sensing could give robots a sense of touch that would greatly expand their usefulness. It’s easy to see how combining this tech with a soft robotic arm opens up a world of possibilities.

In the meantime, the research team is working to secure a patent for the technology and is exploring commercialization options.

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