NEW DEVICE SIMULATES FEEL OF WALLS, SOLID OBJECTS IN VIRTUAL REALITY

Today’s virtual reality systems can create immersive visual experiences, but seldom do they enable users to feel anything—particularly walls, appliances and furniture. A new device developed at Carnegie Mellon University, however, uses multiple strings attached to the hand and fingers to simulate the feel of obstacles and heavy objects.

By locking the strings when the user’s hand is near a virtual wall, for instance, the device simulates 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 CMU next month with a joint degree in mechanical engineering and human-computer interaction, said the shoulder-mounted device takes advantage of spring-loaded strings to reduce weight, consume less battery power and keep costs low.

“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,” said Chris Harrison, assistant professor in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII). User evaluation of the multistring device, as reported by co-authors 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 said. “It’s also fun to explore the feel of irregular objects, such as a statue.”

A Leap Motion sensor, which tracks hand and finger motions, is attached to the VR headset. When it senses that a user’s hand is in proximity to a virtual wall or other obstacle, the ratchets are engaged 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.