Skip to main content

The future of immersive VR? ‘Chemical haptics’ applied to your skin

VR headsets are currently able to simulate realistic environments to trick your brain into thinking it’s actually there. But researchers at the University of Chicago are going a step further by simulating physical sensations using chemicals applied to your skin.

The implementation seems basic, but the results are fascinating and could provide a way to make VR even more immersive.

Univ. of Chicago chemical haptics picture.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

This innovative method, dubbed “chemical haptics,” involves triggering various stimuli on the skin using different chemicals. The chemicals are delivered using a special system of wearable patches and pumps that can be worn anywhere on the body. As long as direct skin contact is possible, the patches will work — including on the face. The studies claim that the chemicals themselves are safe for humans.

There are five different chemicals to simulate five different physical sensations. Menthol is used to create a sensation of coolness, such as walking outside on a cold day. Lidocaine, often used as a local anesthetic, can be used to simulate a numbing sensation on the skin. Capsaicin, the chemical behind your favorite spicy food, is used to create heat or a sense of warmth. Sanshool creates a tingling sensation on the skin, while cinnamaldehyde simulates a stinging sensation, and is potentially useful to teach negative feedback.

The researchers created a video to show how each of the sensations could be used. They made a rudimentary VR game in which the player walks through different environments and has a virtual armband that allows them to interact with their surroundings.

For example, when the virtual armband starts short-circuiting, the chemical patches release sanshool to simulate being shocked. The player also walks through different environments to simulate heat or cold.

Chemical Haptics: Rendering Haptic Sensations via Topical Stimulants

So, why does all this matter? Well, there’s been a renewed interest in both VR and how that could be applied in recent weeks. Facebook recently changed its name to Meta to signal its focus on creating the metaverse, an evolution of the internet that sees social interaction not just on a screen, but in fully realized 3D virtual worlds.

In the novel Ready Player One, there were advanced haptic suits that provided realistic sensations of different textures and surfaces while logged into a virtual world called the OASIS. This research could be a steppingstone to those kinds of suits if the metaverse does ever materialize.

Editors' Recommendations

David Matthews
Former Digital Trends Contributor
David is a freelance journalist based just outside of Washington D.C. specializing in consumer technology and gaming. He has…
What is VR?
Learn the basics of VR: Here's everything you need to know about virtual reality
Playing a fitness game in VR with the Quest Pro.

VR, or Virtual Reality, is a technology designed to make you feel immersed in a virtual world. It's a distinctly different feeling than playing a game or navigating a 3D environment on a static 2D monitor, giving a real feeling of presence in the virtual space. This is typically achieved with a VR headset that places one or two displays very close to your eyes, whilst tracking your position so that it can be translated into the virtual world.

The technology has grown and improved in leaps and bounds over the past decade, with the best VR headsets featuring super high-resolution displays, ever-more nuanced motion controls, and even the ability to use them wirelessly.

Read more
Apple’s secret VR headset just leaked an ingenious idea
A rendering of an Apple mixed-reality headset (Reality Pro) in a gray color seen from the front.

Apple’s Reality Pro mixed-reality headset is probably just a few months from launching, but we’re still seeing the company’s top-secret ideas seeping out into the wild. The latest leak shows one way you might be able to control things in Apple’s metaverse -- and it’s a pretty unusual concept.

According to a recently granted patent (number 2023/0042447 A1), Apple is exploring the idea of using an Apple Pencil as a sort of virtual reality (VR) controller. The idea is that your hand holding the Apple Pencil could be displayed in the mixed-reality world that you see through the headset, overlaying it onto augmented reality (AR) elements.

Read more
This microLED advancement is exactly what AR and VR needs
AR Glasses appear over an enlarged view of a stacked microLED display.

Recent advances in microLED technology could significantly improve AR glasses and VR headsets in the future, according to some new research from MIT.

The report claims that vertical stacking could allow for microscopic pixels that provide full color in just 4 microns.

Read more