Oh, what a feeling! Microsoft Research demos tactile virtual reality controller

One thing that can quickly disrupt the immersion of a virtual reality experience is reaching out to touch an object and not being able to. Now, a Microsoft Research team has demonstrated technology that allows users to run their fingers over virtual objects and feel a mechanically actuated rendition of their shape.

While the haptic feedback currently used in many VR experiences is similar to the rumbling of traditional video game controllers, Microsoft’s NormalTouch and TextureTouch relay a little bit more information to the user. Rather than attempt a full physical re-creation of virtual objects, these peripherals just replicate what is passing under the player’s pointer finger at a given time.

The NormalTouch uses a tiltable, extrudable platform to haptically render the surface of an object, according to a report from MS Power User. The TextureTouch uses a matrix of 16 actuated pins to give an accurate representation of the textural qualities of an object.

Both controllers have their motions monitored by the OptiTrack tracking system. The team has been using an Oculus Rift DK2 headset to test the technology.

These devices offer many different ways for users to interact with their surroundings within a virtual environment. One test demonstrates the NormalTouch peripheral being used to differentiate between three deformable objects with varying levels of surface thickness.

Hardware like this could offer intriguing new possibilities for developers working in the VR space. While Oculus and Valve both have specialized controllers in the works, neither project offers the same capacity for a tactile connection with in-game objects.

It remains to be seen how feasible these additional peripherals would be in real-world circumstances. Consumers will no doubt be wary of buying yet more hardware for their VR set-up, and there’s little indication of how much this technology would cost to implement as a retail product.

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