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Immersion Beyond Sight: The XR Accessories of Today and Tomorrow

Written BY

Emily Friedman

March 14, 2022

Is complete immersion possible? In theory, yes, if scientists and technologists figure out how to accurately simulate all the human senses in virtual reality. This would undoubtedly increase the realism of virtual experiences and while I’m sure multisensory VR games would be AWESOME, I’m more interested in job training, professional design, marketing (brand experiences), and other enterprise applications.

Ericsson believes there will be widespread use of virtual environments engaging all five senses by 2030. Others are less optimistic: The problem, as Louis Rosenberg writes for Business Today, is your body. Rosenberg explains that without elaborate hardware like external cameras, your brain maintains two versions of reality, one of you in virtual reality and one of you sitting or standing where you are (in physical space). This creates the “feeling of being cut off from the world.”

It’s not that today’s VR games and apps aren’t fun or useful, or capable of changing behavior. Virtual reality doesn’t need to stimulate all the senses to be effective, but the technology to do so would make it possible to spend longer stretches of time in the virtual world.

Why so difficult?

Rosenberg remarks that high-fidelity visuals are much easier to create than a unified, sensory virtual model of the world. Let’s focus on touch: Touch is essential to how we understand and interact with the world, and third on most hierarchies of the senses (after sight and hearing). Replicating touch in VR would allow you to feel a car’s interior, the parts of a machine locking into place, and the heat of fire. It would also allow for more natural computer interfaces. So, why is touch so difficult to emulate?

Among other reasons, touch is challenging because it involves the whole body. On a basic level, specialized receptors all over your skin (3,000 in each fingertip alone) sense things like temperature, pressure, and texture. This information turns into electrical signals that travel to the brain, where they’re interpreted as sensations. Add the feeling of weight, resistance, force, etc. and you’re attempting to simulate both human physiology and the laws of physics in the digital realm.

Haptics today

In a few cases, VR training is already changing industry certification requirements. Virtual reality may very well replace all in-person training one day, but for this to happen, haptics and movement in VR will need to significantly advance.

Technavio predicted that the haptics market will grow by nearly $16 billion between 2021 and 2025. Haptics, or the use of touch in human-computer interfaces, includes haptic technology and haptic feedback. Traditional haptic technology relies largely on vibrating motors to simulate tactile sensations. The most common haptic devices are graspable (joystick) and wearable (glove), and may use a combination of electric actuators, pneumatics, hydraulics, and other technologies to create tactile and kinesthetic sensations. Haptic tech can also be touchable (skin patch) or contactless, making use of ultrasound, lasers, and other technologies to create tactile sensations in mid-air (ex. Ultraleap).

Haptic VR accessories

Used mainly by gamers to intensify the immersive experience and interact with virtual objects, products like VR gloves and vests are slowly finding their way into industrial applications: In 2019, for instance, Nissan tested haptic gloves for designing vehicles in VR, and NASA has been testing VR and haptics for remote operation of robotic arms and space vehicles. Here are the major categories of haptic accessories for VR:

Controllers

Hand controllers typically feature multiple sensors for tracking motion, gesture, and/or position. The HTC Vive controller, for example, has 24 sensors and haptic feedback to stimulate the user’s hands and fingers. There are also foot controllers such as the 3dRudder motion controller allowing you to move forward, speed up, turn, etc. and SprintR, “a wireless footpad that lets you easily walk, run, and jump in VR hands free.” Foot controllers aren’t necessarily haptic devices, but they do provide greater, more natural freedom of movement.  

Suits and Vests

Full and partial VR suits provide sensations in different parts of the body. bHaptics’s Tactsuit X40, a wireless haptic vest, has 40 haptic points and can be combined with additional products like Tactal (a haptic face cover) and Tactosy for Feet, Arms or Hands. Marketed as a training solution for complex tasks and environments, the full-body TeslaSuit features haptic feedback, climate control, motion capture, and biometric sensors that track vitals and stress. Holosuit is another full-body motion-capture suit composed of gloves, pants, and a jacket.

Actronika’s haptic vest Skinetic uses “vibrotactile haptics,” with 20 embedded voice-coil motors combining touch and sound for “true-to-life sensations.” Skinetic appeared at CES 2022 in January, along with Owo’s wireless haptic vest, which looks a lot like a running shirt.

Gloves

With precision hand and finger tracking, VR gloves allow users to see their hands and interact with objects in the virtual world. In addition to syncing real and virtual hand motions, gloves allow you to feel haptics all over your hands so you can, for instance, feel the size, shape, or roughness of a virtual object. Most have something akin to internal “tendons” that tense and relax to create haptic feedback.

With 133 points of tactile feedback and up to 40 pounds of resistive force per hand, HaptX Gloves DK2 allow you to interact with heavy objects in VR. According to HaptX’s website, Fortune 500 companies are using its gloves for workforce training and industrial design. SenseGlove Nova, a “force-feedback glove” for VR training and research, replicates the feeling of using tools and dashboards via “vibrotactile feedback.” Volkswagen, Honda, and P&G Health are some of SenseGlove’s customers. Other haptic glove companies include VRgluv, BeBop Sensors, and Manus VR. Meta is working on its own haptic gloves, and bHaptics offers the TactGlove.  

VR Shoes

VR shoes allow you to walk, run, jump, and even detect different surfaces in VR. They also help solve VR’s “infinite walking problem” created by the fact that the virtual world is endless but the room in which you’re playing is not.

EKTO One Simulator Boots use VIVE trackers and motorized wheels to pull your leg back as you walk (not run) forward, giving you the sensation of walking while keeping you in one spot. Cybershoes allow you to walk and run in VR but are used while seated. Both the EKTO boots and Cybershoes strap over the user’s shoe, but there is at least one pair of haptic shoes that look like regular sneakers. These are DropLabs EP 01 shoes intended for gaming and music.

Bonus: Furniture, Masks, and More

Lastly, we have VR furniture and some experimental masks. Like VR shoes, VR chairs and treadmills keep users from getting hurt while exploring expansive VR worlds. Gaming solutions like the Yaw VR Motion Simulator and Roto Motorized VR Chair allow greater freedom of movement in a seated position, so you can, for instance, drive a virtual car. Positron’s Voyager VR chair is designed for cinematic VR, while the Holotron, more of a full-body exoskeleton suspended in place, provides “lifelike control of humanoid avatars."

“Optimized for the home,” the disc-shaped Virtuix Omni One treadmill gives you 360-degrees of movement in VR and comes with a standalone VR headset. Users wear a vest attached to an articulated arm and special shoes. Other VR treadmill companies include Birdly, Cyberith, Kat VR, and Infinadeck.  

Finally, we come to masks and other experimental devices that aim to bring smell and taste into VR. Examples include the FeelReal Multisensory Mask, which simulates hundreds of smells and aromas; OhRoma by CamSoda, a kind of gas mask with fragrance cartridges; and OVR Technology’s olfactory headset for wellness, with preloaded “scentware” to promote relaxation. On the taste front, researchers are experimenting with face masks and even drinking glasses with electrodes to emulate the taste and feel of food and beverages on your tongue.

Watch this space!

Image Source: Road to VR

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