Quirks & Quarks

New device adds a sense of touch to virtual reality

VR has typically worked with sight and sound, but we may be soon playing computer games with feeling

VR has typically worked with sight and sound, but we may be soon playing computer games with feeling

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Garrett Anderson's prosthetic hand was equipped with sensors so he could 'feel' what his hand was touching through the wireless VR skin patch on his upper arm (Northwestern University)

A compact wireless device that can deliver the sensation of delicate touch could be a way of adding a new kind of sense to virtual reality systems.

John Rogers, a biomedical engineer and Director of the Centre for Bio-integrated electronics at Northwestern University in Chicago, led a team that developed the device.

Its basic form is a sheet of soft, conformable rubberlike material in which an array of small mechanical actuators is embedded, along with circuitry to drive them, and antennas to pick up both electrical power and control signals.

The mechanical actuators vibrate at up to 200 cycles per second, and when they do so in a patterned way against skin, the sensation is, Rogers said, similar to a soft touch, like a finger being drawn across the skin.  

This rubberlike VR skin patch with its 32 vibrating actuators visible. The device can pick up wireless signals and the vibrating actuators pass on those signals as a sense of soft touch to the wearer's skin. (Northwestern University)

In one of the team's demonstrations, input for the system came from a touch screen. Touching a finger on the screen led to an analogous sensation of being touched on the volunteer wearing the VR skin device.

Rogers said there are clear applications for this technology in gaming and communication, but his primary interest is in potential applications in therapeutics.

Another of their demonstrations, for example, showed the potential for using the device to provide a kind tactile feedback for prosthetic users. The team equipped a volunteer's prosthetic hand with sensors and then put their device on his upper arm. The sensors then sent a signal to the device so the volunteer could feel on his upper arm what his prosthetic hand was touching.

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