Haptic machine lets VR users feel physical pain for the first time

This machine simulates the sense of touch with haptic feedback.
Image: Nature

Most people are pain averse. In other words, they will do whatever it takes to avoid painful stimuli. So, why is everyone so focused on integrating haptic gear into virtual reality (VR)? For one, that type of technology will make VR much more immersive. It may even be enough to propel it into the mainstream.

Now, a team of scientists has created a haptic “skin machine” that simulates the sense of touch. While VR is obviously a big implication, another use is enhancing prosthetics for amputees.

Haptic Interface

In a paper published in the journal Nature, scientists behind the device describe it as “skin-integrated wireless haptic interfaces for virtual and augmented reality.”

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It is made of a lightweight electronic sheet that sticks to the body. The soft material has skin-like qualities that prevent it from feeling like an intrusive piece of technology. Inside, it boasts a network of pressure, vibration, and motion components that all work together to create a simulated sense of touch.

The researchers say, “The whole process is very complex. The sense of touch is a collection of several sensations, encompassing pressure, pain, and temperature. Until now, it has been a great challenge to incorporate sensations of touch into virtual and augmented reality.”

Perhaps that’s why haptic technology has been so slow to develop. Yet, despite the lack of progress, there is no doubt that this type of tech has massive implications.

Enhanced VR and Prosthetics

As seen in “Ready Player One,” haptic technology could be expanded to create a bodysuit or breastplate that, with a pair of gloves and arm sleeves, replicates the majority of sensations felt. Something like this in tandem with a VR video game could create something never seen before. Imagine playing a game like “Call of Duty” in VR and feeling the impact of explosions and bullets without the risk of being hurt. Even wilder, think of stepping into a “Mortal Kombat” match and feeling every strike thrown by an opponent.

However, video games aren’t the only place where this technology could be put to work. A more impactful use is within the field of prosthetics. While some sort of computer connection would also be necessary, the “skin machine” could simulate the shape of objects being held in a robotic hand. Essentially, this would give an amputee their sense of touch back. Fortunately, there are plenty of ideas about how a human brain can be connected to a computer. Not that it’s necessarily a good idea.

In every sense, such haptic technology will be groundbreaking. As VR makes a push to become something more than a toy for tech enthusiasts, being able to feel what you see in the digital world will certainly help. For now, it’s just a matter of time until the tech matures enough to see real-world use.

As put by the team behind this device, “In comparison to the eyes and the ears, the skin is a relatively underexplored sensory interface for VR and AR technology that could, nevertheless, greatly enhance experiences at a qualitative level, with direct relevance in areas such as communication, entertainment and medicine.”