Wireality adds haptic touch to objects in VR

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Wireality is a haptic feedback system that lets users feel VR objects.
Image: Carnegie Mellon University

Virtual reality (VR) technology is rapidly improving. However, it hasn’t even begun to reach its full potential. Part of the reason for this is that many users have difficulty immersing themselves in their virtual environments and, thus, don’t want to buy expensive hardware.

Haptic feedback could change that. Several startups are pioneering solutions that allow users to “feel” digital objects while wearing a virtual reality headset. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University just came up with a system that would let users touch almost any virtual item.

Multi-String Haptics

The application developed at Carnegie Mellon uses an array of wires that connect to a harness worn by the user over their shoulders like a backpack. Using a principle known as multi-string haptics, the device lets users feel objects in the virtual world. It accomplishes this by strategically stopping the user’s hand at different points to match the geometry of the item they are interacting with.

Researchers gave their system the appropriate name of Wireality. They demonstrated how it works in a YouTube video.

Lead engineer Cathy Fang says, “Our system enables tangible interactions with complex geometries, such as touching non-perpendicular, flat, and curved surfaces, wrapping fingers around railings and poles, and touching irregular objects.”

Wireality is unique solution to the problem of making VR more immersive. The system’s spring-loaded retractors (like those found in ID badge reels) are low in power consumption. That energy efficiency is an important factor in adding haptic feedback to consumer VR products.

Meanwhile, the entire system is extremely lightweight. When dispersed evenly across a user’s shoulders, it is barely perceptible.

Perhaps the most important factor, however, is its price. Fang and her team estimate that it could be produced at scale for under $50. As such, Wireality is a far cheaper solution than most other haptic feedback options being explored.

The team’s research is published in the Association for Computing Machinery’s digital library.

Feeling the Competition

As noted, haptic feedback is one of the ways that VR companies believe they can get users to adopt the technology. Imagine playing a video game and being able to feel a weapon in your hand or experience the impact of every moment. Likewise, businesses can envision VR applications that put employees through “hands-on” training in a virtual environment.

Companies like Teslasuit are at the forefront of this movement. The startup is working on both a glove and a full-body suit that allow users to feel things in VR. Notably, Teslasuit’s system is more sophisticated than Wireality.

Teslasuit showed off its glove at CES 2020 earlier this year and is slated to launch the product in the second half of 2020. Whether or not that project will see delays as a result of the coronavirus pandemic remains unknown.

Meanwhile, researchers from the City University of Hong Kong and Northwestern University unveiled a skin-like VR system that lets users feel pain. That’s far different than simple touch feedback.

With innovations like Wireality and those from other companies, haptic feedback for VR might arrive sooner than expected. For the VR’s future, that’s a good thing.

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