Play Video

New VR tech simulates touching walls and other stuff

A man wears a VR headset inside The 'Le Cri VR' installation of the Venice Virtual Reality At Lazzaretto Vecchio Island during the 76th Venice Film Festival at on September 04, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Credit: Amy T. Zielinski/Getty Images)

A new device uses multiple strings attached to the hand and fingers to simulate the feel of obstacles and heavy objects in virtual reality, researchers report.

Today’s virtual reality systems can create immersive visual experiences, but seldom allow users to feel anything—particularly walls, appliances, and furniture.

In comparison, the new device locks the strings when the user’s hand is near a virtual wall, for instance, to simulate the sense of touching the wall. Similarly, the string mechanism enables people to feel the contours of a virtual sculpture, sense resistance when they push on a piece of furniture, or even give a high five to a virtual character.

Cathy Fang, who will graduate from Carnegie Mellon University next month with a joint degree in mechanical engineering and human-computer interaction, says the shoulder-mounted device takes advantage of spring-loaded strings to reduce weight, consume less battery power, and keep costs low.

A young woman wearing a virtual reality headset and the shoulder mounted device touches a virtual lion statue
A new device developed at Carnegie Mellon University uses multiple strings attached to the hand and fingers to simulate the feel of obstacles and heavy objects in virtual reality environments. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon)

“Elements such as walls, furniture, and virtual characters are key to building immersive virtual worlds, and yet contemporary VR systems do little more than vibrate hand controllers,” says Chris Harrison, assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII).

User evaluation of the multistring device, as reported by coauthors Harrison, Fang, Robotics Institute engineer Matthew Dworman, and HCII doctoral student Yang Zhang, found it was more realistic than other haptic techniques.

“I think the experience creates surprises, such as when you interact with a railing and can wrap your fingers around it,” Fang says. “It’s also fun to explore the feel of irregular objects, such as a statue.”

Other researchers have used strings to create haptic feedback in virtual worlds, but typically they use motors to control the strings. Motors wouldn’t work for the researchers, who envisioned an affordable system light enough for users to wear.

“The downside to motors is they consume a lot of power,” Fang says. “They also are heavy.”

Instead of motors, the team used spring-loaded retractors, similar to those seen in key chains or ID badges. They added a ratchet mechanism that an electrically controlled latch can rapidly lock.  The springs, not motors, keep the strings taut. Only a small amount of electrical power is needed to engage the latch, so the system is energy efficient and operates on battery power.

The researchers experimented with a number of different strings and string placements, eventually concluding that attaching one string to each fingertip, one to the palm, and one to the wrist provided the best experience. A Leap Motion sensor, which tracks hand and finger motions, attaches to the VR headset. When it senses that a user’s hand is in proximity to a virtual wall or other obstacle, the ratchets engage in a sequence suited to those virtual objects. The latches disengage when the person withdraws their hand.

The entire device weighs less than 10 ounces. The researchers estimate that a mass-produced version would cost less than $50.

Fang says the system would be suitable for VR games and experiences that involve interacting with physical obstacles and objects, such a maze. It might also be useful for visits to virtual museums. And, in a time when physically visiting retail stores is not always possible, “you might also use it to shop in a furniture store,” she adds.

The researchers had planned to share their paper at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, now canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper appears in the conference proceedings in the Association for Computing Machinery’s Digital Library.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University