Virtual reality motion controllers work pretty well at syncing up the movements of digital digits with your real ones, but they aren't all that good at recreating the sense of touch. Scientists from EPFL and ETH Zurich have developed new haptic gloves that could help users get in touch with virtual objects.
The new gloves, dubbed DextrES, work using a pretty novel technique. Embedded into the fingers of nylon gloves are strips of an elastic metal with a thin insulator between them. When a virtual object needs to be simulated, a voltage difference is applied to the metal strips, which causes them to stick together. That in turn creates a braking force – the wearer physically can't close their fingers past a certain point, giving them the firm impression that there's something in their hand. When the object is dropped, the voltage is lifted and they can move their fingers freely again.
"The human sensory system is highly developed and highly complex," says Otmar Hilliges, head of the Advanced Interactive Technologies Lab at ETH Zurich. "We have many different kinds of receptors at a very high density in the joints of our fingers and embedded in the skin. As a result, rendering realistic feedback when interacting with virtual objects is a very demanding problem and is currently unsolved. Our work goes one step in this direction, focusing particularly on kinesthetic feedback."
To test DextrES, the team had participants perform virtual reality tasks that required fine motor skills, and the feedback was apparently positive. Along with the realistic recreations, the gloves are far less bulky than other systems, being only 2 mm (0.08 in) thick and with the equipment weighing just 8 g (0.3 oz) per finger.
The system can apply up to 40 Newtons of force on each finger using just 200 volts and a few milliwatts of power. In its current form it's powered through external cables, but given that low power requirement the team says it could fairly easily be adapted to run off a small battery.
"We wanted to develop a lightweight device that – unlike existing virtual-reality gloves – doesn't require a bulky exoskeleton, pumps or very thick cables," says Herbert Shea, head of the Soft Transducers Laboratory at EPFL.
The research is being presented at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) in Berlin this week, and the haptic gloves can be seen in action in the video below.
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