Wireality offers a novel way to let you "feel" complex objects in VR
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Future Interfaces Group have come up with a novel way of letting VR users "feel" virtual surfaces, with the use of a puppet-style glove that can stop your fingers in space when they touch a virtual object.
The "Wireality" system prototype places a chunky pack on the user's shoulder, with light, spring-retractable wires running out to a wristband, a palm band and pads on each of the user's fingers. Using hand-tracking VR, the user can reach out and "touch" things in virtual space, and when each of these seven points on the hand come up against a virtual object, the wires are locked in place using a low-energy ratchet lock.
Thus, the fingers, hand and wrist can feel the resistance and some of the shape of a surface, and the locks can be released the moment the hand is no longer touching the virtual object. Complex shapes can be attempted, such as wrapping one's hands partially around a large pole or touching irregular surfaces, but, because the system doesn't use any motors, there's no way to mechanically retract the fingers further, if you try to slide them over a virtual bump, for example.
Adding touch to VR is something of a holy grail at this point. The visual and sonic immersion of VR is already incredible with today's technology, but the spell can be broken when your other senses don't come to the party. There are haptic gloves, haptic vests, haptic bodysuits and even haptic boots in development, and while each of these doubtless moves things in the right direction, it's hard to see any of them taking off just yet.
By attempting to simulate touch at the skin, their outputs will only ever be crude. Realistically, the only way to fully simulate the ability to feel things in VR will be by hijacking the nervous system further up, using some kind of direct brain stimulation. But one can imagine how insanely complex that would be to get working across a wide range of diverse brains. That kind of neural interface tech is a long way off, and doubtless a low priority for neural researchers.
It's hard to see the Wireality system taking off as a product; most people don't want to strap themselves into complex machinery with wires poking out of it. Hell, plenty of them don't even want their VR headset to have a wire coming out the back of it running to a PC. But still, it's an interesting snapshot of where things are at in 2020 and a novel idea.
The full paper on the research can be found here, and check out the system in the video below.