Typically, when people want to experience real-world tactile feedback while exploring virtual reality environments, they use hand-held devices that vibrate in response to the touching of virtual surfaces. Researchers at UC San Diego, however, are developing something that reportedly provides a much more life-like experience. They're making lightweight flexible gloves that simulate the resistance you would feel upon touching a real object.
In the current experimental setup, in which a virtual piano keyboard is being played, a Leap Motion sensor is used to detect movements of the user's hands in the real world.
A computer determines how these movements would correspond to objects in the virtual world, and activates the gloves accordingly. If a movement of one real-life finger would cause a virtual key to be pressed, for instance, then the finger of that glove would be activated to provide a feeling of resistance.
This is made possible via Mckibben muscles – inflatable latex tubes covered in braided fibers – which run along the back of the hand from each of the gloves' fingers. When one of the tubes is inflated, it contracts, creating resistance in that finger. The more it's inflated, the greater the amount of resistance.
The researchers are now working on making the gloves cheaper and less bulky, plus they would like to get rid of the Leap Motion component altogether, using integrated sensors to determine the position of the gloves.
You can see the prototype in use, in the video below.