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Scientists bid to create finishing touch for VR

The sheet vibrates to replicate touch interactions, potentially bringing distant family members closer and helping people with prosthetics.

Virtual reality may be able to transport our sight and sound senses to new heights, but one area it has failed to immerse us in is the power of touch.

Scientists in the US have developed a prototype device which aims to put this third sense within VR’s reach. This was done by using a flexible material fitted with tiny vibrating components that can be attached to skin. In addition, researchers from Northwestern University believe the system, known as epidermal VR, could be useful in other cases. For instance this could be from a child touching a display relaying the gesture to a family member located elsewhere, to helping people with amputations renew their sense of touch. In gaming, it could alert players when a strike occurs on the corresponding body part of the game character.

It could be very powerful for social interactions, clinical medicine and applications that we cannot conceive of today, beyond the obvious opportunities in gaming and entertainment

Professor John A Rogers Physical chemist, Northwestern University

“Virtual reality is a very important emerging area of technology,” said Professor John A Rogers, who worked on the project.

“Currently, we’re just using our eyes and our ears as the basis for those experiences.

“The community has been comparatively slow to exploit the body’s largest organ: the skin. Our sense of touch provides the most profound, deepest emotional connection between people.”

The team’s design features 32 vibrating actuators on a thin 15 cm by 15 cm silicone polymer which sticks on to the skin without tape or straps and is free of large batteries and wires.

It uses near-field communication (NFC) technology – which is used in many smartphones for mobile payment today – to transfer the data.

Retired US Army Sergeant Garrett Anderson
Retired US army sergeant Garrett Anderson tries out the technology with his prosthetic arm (Northwest University/PA)

“It could be very powerful for social interactions, clinical medicine and applications that we cannot conceive of today, beyond the obvious opportunities in gaming and entertainment,” Prof Rogers said.

“With this wireless power delivery scheme, we completely avoid the need for batteries, with their weight, size, bulk and limited operating lifetimes.

“The result is a thin, lightweight system that can be worn and used without constraint indefinitely.”

Scientists hope that the technology could eventually find its way into clothing, allowing people with prosthetics to wear VR shirts that communicate touch through their fingertips.

Their research is published in the Nature journal.

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