Virtual reality worlds look great, but the immersion breaks as soon as you try to reach out and touch something. To try to add a bit more physical feedback to VR, Disney Research has unveiled a prototype wearable device it calls the "Force Jacket," which uses a set of inflatable bags to simulate pressure and force in sync with visuals.

Most tactile feedback systems in the works for VR use haptic motors to create vibrations, and we've seen these embedded into gloves, boots, and even a full-body suit. The Force Jacket, created by engineers at Disney Research, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, uses a different method to simulate varying amounts of pressure or vibrations across the torso and down the arms.

Woven inside the Force Jacket are 26 bags that can be inflated and deflated independently, thanks to tubes hooked up to an air compressor and a vacuum pump. The system can puff up combinations of these bags at different speeds and to different degrees, to simulate various "feel effects" on different parts of the body. A quick inflation on your side, for example, can feel like a punch, while a slower, gentler movement could mimic a hug. Quickly filling and emptying the bags can create vibrations.

To test the system out, the designers had 16 participants wear the Force Jacket and play through some rough virtual reality apps. With visuals helping out, the researchers were able to recreate some very specific sensations, including a tap on the shoulder, slime dripping on their back, bugs crawling up their arms, a snowball hitting their chest, and even the feeling of a snake coiling its way around your body, moving and tightening around different parts. Vibrations, meanwhile, were able to simulate feelings like riding a motorbike, rain pattering down on your shoulders, or the sensation of a racing heartbeat.

The Force Jacket has some clear potential applications in making VR experiences feel far more immersive, but it's not something you're likely to see in your own home for a while. Since it's driven by an air compressor and vacuum pump, the rig is far too bulky for personal use, but it could show up in permanent installations.

While there's no guarantee that the Force Jacket will eventuate into a product, we can't help but feel like it could be well-suited to a future VR attraction at a Disney theme park – and having the word "force" in the name might be a clue as to what theme such a game might take. After all, a recent patent for a lightsaber battle system at Disneyland made mention of a haptic feedback suit. For now, all we can do is dream.

The research paper describing the Force Jacket was published online (PDF), and the team demonstrates the system in the video below.

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