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Electrical muscle stimulation could help make virtual reality more immersive

Why it matters to you

Virtual reality can already be a jaw-dropping experience, but research projects like this one are set to ensure that it continues to evolve in years to come.

Virtual reality technology has made some major leaps forward over the past few years, but there are still some niggling issues that need to be addressed. However, a promising project being undertaken by the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany could help developers tackle one of the biggest barriers to full immersion.

When VR experiences display the user’s surrounding via the display in their headset, the effect can be very convincing — but reaching out with your hand and finding nothing there can quickly break this sense of immersion. A team working under Dr. Patrick Baudisch is attempting to improve upon this situation by implementing haptic feedback.

The project uses electrical muscle stimulation to force the user’s muscles to respond as if a heavy object were there, according to a blog post published on the HPI website. The two examples given are a large box that can be carried, and a wall situated in the environment.

The system that the team has created is capable of stimulating up to four different muscle groups. It works by activating the opposition muscles for the desired movement, which simulates how the user’s body would respond to the weight or resistance of an object.

The entire hardware setup can be housed with a small backpack, with sensors attached to various positions on the wearer’s arms. The potential of the technology seems to far outweigh the mild inconvenience of having to wear a backpack as well as a headset.

The team at HPI has already carried out two user studies to field test its implementation of this technology. There’s no guarantee that their work will become a consumer product — but it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of the major players in the VR industry pursue this concept further.

Many would argue that VR is already prohibitively expensive, and additional hardware isn’t going to help matters. However, it’s been proven that there’s a market for high-quality VR experiences, no matter the cost, and this technology seems well placed to serve that crowd.