Virtual reality headsets are looking set to transform the way we game, browse and learn, but for all their potential, there is one sense they are sorely lacking in when it comes to providing an immersive experience.
While realistic visuals are quickly becoming possible, the sense of touch remains elusive to VR. However, this could change with the development of the Hands Omni glove by students at Rice University.
The glove is designed to provide pressure-based feedback so that gamers and other users can feel objects they interact with in virtual environments.
“What we’ve made is a glove that uses air to inflate bladders underneath your fingers, so you can hook this up to a video game and when you reach out and grab a virtual object, it feels like you’re actually grabbing that object,” explained Rice University mechanical engineering student Thor Walker.
The glove is in the early stages of development at present, with only the right hand currently available as a working prototype.
Some details of how it works have been kept under wraps by the glove’s co-developer and sponsor, Houston-based gaming company Virtuix, which is no doubt hoping to commercialise the technology.
However, the students have said the system uses Arduino and believe that game developers will find it pretty easy to implement Hands Omni’s protocols into specific games, meaning it could enjoy support from numerous emerging VR titles.
Each finger can be programmed to have pressure individually applied to it, allowing developers to simulate touch or interaction with specific fingers. However, the ring and little fingers are treated as one unit due to the little finger’s lack of use for lifting and interaction.
“It’s not very often you pick something up with just your pinkie,” explained electrical engineering student Marissa Garcia.
Weighing in at only 350g (12oz), the glove is designed to be light enough to forget about as gamers become immersed in their virtual environment, something that the team felt was important to its success.
“We had our own constraints based on testing to determine the amount of perceptible weight that could be strapped to your fingers, arms, legs and limbs – the maximum weight that is perceptible to users – and we came up with 660g [23oz] on the forearm and much less than that on the back of the hand or on the fingers,” explained mechanical engineering student Kevin Koch.
“We wanted as much mass as far back on the hand as possible, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. The user will hardly know it’s there.”
The Hands Omni glove is by no means the only solution being explored for bringing touch to virtual reality; however it is one of the few that could be commercially available by the time Valve’s HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are available to purchase later this year.
One project, UltraHaptics, is looking at using haptic feedback supplied by ultrasound to enable users to feel virtual objects; however this cannot provide a sense of pressure or resistance normally associated with physical objects. It also will not be commercially available as quickly as the Hands Omni.
While the glove is fairly basic in its application of touch, it could be very popular as it would provide a whole new element for immersive gaming. In time, we will no doubt see updates that bring more refinement, and perhaps even different surfaces, but for now this glove could provide the short-time answer to bringing touch to gaming.