Virtual reality headsets can be pretty darn amazing, with the ability to transport us into other settings, locations and even lived experiences in a way that’s simply not possible in other mediums.
But while modern VR headsets are impressive, today’s handheld VR controllers are only passable when it comes to letting us interact with the virtual world. Unless you’re a 1980s action hero, chances are that you need a bit more that not every interaction you have is conducted by squeezing a pair of triggers.
Fortunately, some other more nuanced alternatives are out there — and they promise to make VR experiences as immersive as we’ve always dreamed they can be. Here are some of the most intriguing examples:
VR gets even more gripping
What we like about this project, created by researchers in the Shape Lab at Stanford University, is that it’s an affordable example of how relatively simple controllers can be used to mimic sensations like grasping an object without the need for bulky electric motors.
Called Wolverine, the mobile wearable haptic device resembles the famous X-Men character’s iconic claws. Using this design, it’s possibly to simulate a wide variety of objects a user might grasp in virtual reality by rendering a force directly between the thumb and three fingers.
Using low-power, brake-based locking sliders, the Wolverine can stretch, lock or relax these to give the effect of virtual objects with a wide range of dimensions. Our only question: Where do we buy one?
Want to go one step further in our interactions with the virtual world? Do you want to do it while looking like a street mime or fancy butler? If so, you may be interested in a pair of white haptic gloves that the Facebook-owned Oculus VR is reportedly working on.
While they’ve not yet been made public, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has referenced said gloves in a Facebook post, and they were recently described in a pair of patent filings made by Oculus. “The haptic feedback mechanism includes a composite extendible ribbon coupled to a glove digit of a glove body,” one of the patents reads.
The gloves feature internal “tendons” which tense and relax to simulate a sense of touch in VR. This mechanism will control the amount of movement you’re able to make, thereby offering resistance. Of course, it is possible to go even further…
Full body haptic suits
Resembling the kind of skin-tight costume you’d typically find in a Marvel movie, full body haptic suits have a simple advantage over tech like haptic gloves: they cover more of your body.
At this year’s CES 2018, Digital Trends spoke with the maker of Teslasuit, an upcoming “electro-tactile haptic feedback system” that works by stimulating your nerves with electricity. This creates sensations to can replicate anything from a soft caress to a harder impact.
Sure, having to dress in a full Starlight Express-style bodysuit to experience immersive VR means it’s probably only going to appeal to the most dedicated folks out there. But if it can take our gaming experience to the next level, it’ll surely be worth it!
Are you a bit squeamish about the idea of having your nerves zapped with electricity to simulate different sensations? Then you probably won’t be a fan of the brain-zapping experiment carried out by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
They’ve updated the so-called “rubber hand illusion” for the VR age by showing how the mind can be made to feel ownership and agency over a virtual hand when a person’s real hand is touched at the same time as an artificial one. This is done by stimulating the brain using a safe, noninvasive process called transcranial magnetic stimulation.
“We showed that in healthy volunteers it is possible to induce the illusory feeling that a virtual hand belongs to them and that they can control it,” researcher Michela Bassolino told Digital Trends. In an experiment, the effect worked on 80 percent of participants.
Specialized haptic controllers
Particularly when you’re dealing with specific-purpose VR scenarios, it’s possible to develop specialized controllers for realistically simulating experiences.
Earlier this year, we tried out a VR scenario developed by the London-based company Fundamental VR, which is busy making VR training tools for the next generation of surgeons.
In Fundamental’s demo, we carried out a sleeve gastrectomy, a weight-loss procedure in which surgeons must lift, cut and suture the stomach. Carrying it out using a dedicated controller allows the experience to be faithfully recreated in a way that could be useful for teaching.
Depending on the application, other VR controllers can be created or honed to simulate a wide variety of different tasks.
Simulating sensations through haptic technology is all well and good, but immersive VR needs more than that. One example? The fact that giving users the ability to walk through expansive virtual worlds doesn’t work so well if there are walls in the way.
A possible solution is a multi-directional treadmill like the Virtuix Omni, which lets users move freely and at full speed in 360 degrees while still remaining stationary.
An intriguing alternative involves so-called “redirected walking,” in which a person’s brain is tricked into thinking that he or she is walking in a straight line when, in fact, they are walking in a large circle. The result is an infinite virtual corridor in a “play space” measuring just 16 feet by 22 feet.
A virtual sense of smell
Touch, sight and sound are all important, but smell is an essential part of creating a truly immersive experience, too. If you thought the olfactory department had been ignored by researchers, though… well, you probably don’t watch enough porn.
Last year, “live cams” business CamSoda announced a new product called OhRoma, which essentially takes the form of a gas mas loaded with fragrance canisters. While they had smell-o-vision pornography in mind (probably not our first choice of scent-driven VR, to be honest), it would have application in various other virtual reality domains. And while we’re covering scent…
A taste for VR
The final sense — taste — can also be simulated in VR. Researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed a programmable cocktail glass called the “Vocktail,” which is capable of tricking your senses into thinking that you’re drinking … well, just about anything you can imagine, really.
By using electrodes, placed around the rim, the glass can stimulate the tongue so that it tastes the liquid contained in it as salty, sweet or sour. Interestingly, it then uses scent to fine-tune these flavors, since the subtleties of our taste palette rely on smell to complete the experience.
So there you have it!
The ultimate immersive VR setup will have us dressed in a full body suit, walking in circles, wearing a gas mask, goggles and a set of chunky headphones.
Let’s just hope you don’t get all kitted up, only to hear the doorbell ring. Because this could be a little hard to explain!
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