January 17, 2024
The virtual reality headset market is flourishing. The latest and upcoming devices like Meta Quest 3 and Apple’s Vision Pro have put the metaverse back on the map, which means it’s time to re-evaluate the market for XR accessories, from the currently available to the futuristic and conceptual. XR accessories are devices - wearable or not - designed to increase immersion in the virtual world and/or provide a more seamless VR experience.
Let’s start with the most familiar: As headsets become increasingly compact and lightweight with support for eye and hand tracking, some are shipping without controllers. Vision Pro and HoloLens 2, for example, don’t require hand-held controllers to interact with virtual content but instead utilize hand gestures like air tap, voice commands, and even gaze–more natural input methods. But don’t worry, controllers still have a role to play in VR.
Today’s sleek and ergonomic VR controllers incorporate tracking sensors and realistic haptics. Meta Quest Touch Plus controllers, for instance, offer precision pinch motion and realistic haptic feedback. Sony recently showed off prototype haptic VR controllers that can adapt their center of mass to different use cases. Used separately or attached in various configurations, the controllers can act as, say, a shotgun or an umbrella. Then there are devices like TapXR, a “wrist wearable controller” that registers as an HID keyboard when paired with your VR headset. Using a combination of motion and optical sensors, TapXR can detect and decode over 100 different finger gestures in real time. Tap also sells a “single handed all-in-one wearable keyboard, mouse, and air gesture controller” that looks not all that unlike flexible brass knuckles.
Haptic gloves are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Just last month, Meta revived its haptic feedback efforts with two new software releases. Haptics Studio and Haptics SDK allow developers to add advanced haptics to their Quest apps.
Haptics essentially add touch to virtual experiences. The most common form factor for our enterprise purposes are gloves, which rely on vibrating motors, pneumatics, microfluidics, or even lasers to simulate tactile sensations, including texture and pressure, when interacting with virtual content.
Haptic gloves are particularly relevant for VR training. Imagine being able to feel like you’re really holding and pressing the trigger of a power drill while learning to assemble a machine in a virtual factory. Flight simulations, surgical training…haptic gloves not only enhance the realism but also make it possible to build muscle memory and even autocorrect technique in VR. Haptic gloves are also used today to control robots; in a similar vein, physicians could potentially use haptic gloves to perform remote medical procedures, technicians could diffuse explosives from afar, etc.
Examples of haptic gloves include SenseGlove Nova ($3,999) and Nova 2 ($6,466). The former apply force and “vibrotactile feedback” to simulate the feeling of holding a virtual power tool or pressing a button on a dashboard. Nova 2 allows you to sense virtual objects in the palm of your hand. Both are marketed for research, training, virtual prototyping, and marketing.
Other haptic glove makers include HaptX, Manus, and Contact CI.
There are also full-body haptic devices like the $12,999 Teslasuit, a two-piece smart bodysuit that uses “electro muscle and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation” to simulate a range of realistic feelings and sensations in VR. In addition to haptic feedback, the suit features motion and biometric tracking, enabling things like performance monitoring, ergonomics testing, and more personalized VR experiences.
Another example is the modular Exit Suit with full-body force feedback. Still under development, this suit responds to events in VR by applying pressure to the appropriate area(s) of the user’s body.
Haptic Belts and More
Besides gloves and suits, haptic systems can be fitted into belts, vests, backpacks, and more. These devices tend to be prototypes and/or designed for consumers. Examples include JumpMod, a prototype haptic backpack that rapidly shifts the position of a weight inside the pack to create sensations of jumping; and Feelbelt, which lets users “feel” sounds in VR through detailed vibrations.
Researchers are also exploring contactless haptic technology, including the use of lasers and ultrasound to generate tactile sensations in the air!
VR chairs, treadmills, mats, etc. overcome the restrictions of physical space, enabling the user to move around freely in a virtual environment. Normally, you can only walk in VR as far as the physical room allows. A treadmill allows you to walk, run, jump, and crouch without going anywhere. Accompanied by a fan or something similar, a VR treadmill can even create atmospheric sensations.
Virtuix Omni One may be the most well-known example of VR furniture. Optimized for the home, the $2,595 “omnidirectional treadmill” is marketed as a complete entertainment system (complete with a standalone Pico VR headset) allowing 360-degree freedom of movement. To use the device, the user is strapped to a hinged arm that is connected to a four-foot-wide circular treadmill.
The $799 ROTO VR Chair Explorer is a motorized chair with integrated haptics enabling users to move around more freely in VR while seated. So, for instance, the chair might tilt in a flight simulation as the user prepares the aircraft for launch. ROTO also offers a variety of accessories to customize its VR chairs including a desktop to turn it into a mixed reality workstation.
In addition to increasing immersion, such devices can prevent VR sickness, improve comfort, and reduce some of the safety risks associated with VR–specifically, the lack of awareness of one’s surroundings when wearing a headset. The Skywin VR Mat is designed to do just that, helping to position and direct the user so as not to hit people or break objects nearby.
Next up are spatial audio accessories designed to create believable sound in virtual spaces. Many of today’s VR headsets including Quest 3 have built-in spatial audio systems that help position sound around the user more realistically. (They usually have sound leak prevention and passive noise cancellation, too.)
Like haptics, spatial audio is an evolving area of technology that aims to do the seemingly impossible: Replicate acoustics or how sound waves are absorbed and reflected in physical environments. With haptics, you need to imitate both the physicality of the virtual object and the neuroscience of touch. In the case of sound, you need to simulate the direction/distance of the sound and a realistic sonic profile for the virtual environment.
Realistic audio is important for certain VR applications like training, design, and even virtual meetings. One simplistic approach involves manipulating stereo volume to suggest how far a sound is. Treble is working on a more advanced wave-based approach that accounts for the audio source, geometry of the space, and physical properties of the building materials–particularly for AEC and digital twins. Imagine being able to inhabit a 3D model and hear what a building sounds like before construction!
Read this blog post by Valve audio engineer Emily Ridgway to learn more about the challenges of audio immersion.
Several startups are working on bringing smell and even taste into VR via masks or other wearables. It may seem silly, but adding scent to training simulations can improve knowledge retention and the efficacy of VR training overall.
Smells help us form memories and detect potential threats like smoke and gas leaks. Smell even influences your mood. It’s not hard to imagine the implications for firefighters, plant workers, property adjusters, and other professions. Scent in VR opens the door to more emotionally engaging and memorable VR customer experiences, too, particularly in the retail and travel industries.
OVR has been working on wearable scent technology for a while now. Its ION Scentware cartridge combines primary aromas to create thousands of unique scents, and is worn near the nose by a strap around the user’s neck or around the VR headset itself. Most recently, Aromajoin unveiled a wearable form of its Aroma Shooter “scent speaker” or diffuser.
Trackers and More (Misc.)
Even though today’s headsets have increasingly accurate built-in tracking capabilities, additional devices may still be required for things like full-body tracking. The AI-powered $199 VIVE Ultimate Tracker, for example, can be strapped to the user’s feet, elbows, and/or waist for enhanced body tracking; while the VIVE Tracker can bring real objects into the virtual world.
EKTO VR Boots and Cybershoes provide wearable alternatives to bulky VR treadmills. The latter are essentially trackers worn over your shoes, whereas the boots are motorized. Both enable safe movement in all directions with less motion sickness.
Other real and prototype VR accessories include tools to improve user comfort and fit, mitigate VR sickness, extend battery life, reduce latency, or simply protect your hardware. Strap options, face cushions and pads for Quest, HoloLens and other devices, disposable eye covers for shared headsets, and even Motorola-Verizon’s 5G necklace fall under this category.
Image sources: Upload VR, ARPost, Virtuix, and Teslasuit