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HapticWave: Touching Virtual Realities

Virtual realities used to be a thing only movies could depict. They are now something almost anyone can experience. All you need is a little help from companies like Oculus (or to walk into a Brookstone). Now, I don’t think researchers have yet found a way to create a virtual reality as intense as the one in the Matrix. (Not that we would we want them to.) But, virtual realities have finally stopped being just predictions of the future. They have become, well, a reality.

Oculus researchers have started taking virtual reality games one step further. They want users not only to experience sound and sight, but touch too. Insert HapticWave. This new research is a project backed by Oculus and, would you believe it, Facebook. “Similar” technology has not been able to give feedback that gives a sense of direction. (ex. the buzz your cellphone makes). As a result, the capabilities of that technology are limited.  These devices also usually necessitate the user wears gloves or holds the object. But HapticWave changes both of those features.

In design, HapticWave is “a circular metal plate set atop a ring of electromagnetic actuators” (MIT). How does it work? Well, the user places his or her hand on top of the plate. Then the electromagnetic actuators will send vibrations into that person’s hand. Ravish Mehra, a research scientist at Oculus, commented that a headset and audio features help enhance the illusion even more.

HapticWave has different reactions when low-frequency vibrations and high-frequency vibrations occur. Low frequency vibrations gear towards heavier objects. This means they make it seem like those heavier objects are hitting other items in virtual space. Whereas, it’s the opposite for high-frequency vibrations. They give off the perception that small objects are hitting other items in the same way. One of the main components that sets apart HapticWave is the directional aspect of the vibrations. It conveys to users where the objects are in relation to them. This makes the interactions feel more genuine.

The researchers at Oculus used their Rift VR headset to create a demo for HapticWave. They also added in the factor of spatial audio alongside the two other elements. In one of these demos, they had an animated ball bounce across a table. Then vibrations came from the plate so users could feel where the ball was coming from. And if they wanted to move the ball, they could use their keyboard. Ultimately, in this version of virtual reality, the user could see the ball, hear it, move it, and (as an added bonus) feel it.

The possibilities of where the research of this new technology could go are endless. HapticWave could improve at home video games, for sure. But, this technology might also enhance gamification in learning. If a student is learning about dinosaurs, he or she could actually feel the vibrations from the dinosaurs walking around (PM). You could even hypothesize this technology may allow for games (educational and home) to be developed for users who are blind or hearing impaired. Can you imagine how the aspect of touch would enhance their experience while playing a game they otherwise could not play?

Mehra said he couldn’t comment if HapticWave would appear in any Oculus gadgets. But, he did mention that researchers envision HapticWave used in tabletop style virtual reality games. It’s possible that could be sooner rather than later. The demos Oculus created were set to be shown at the Siggraph computer graphics and interaction conference this past week!

“Our hope around this project was [that we could] generate this extrasensory input so users can be more perceptive and more believable of virtual objects,” Mehra stated. It looks like as if virtual realities might become a big part of our society. They have possibilities of use in the home, a business, or even in education. And I think the greatest aspect of HapticWave is it’s not limited to sight and sound. It brings touch into the equation. There is hope for the development of games that don’t involve sight or maybe even sound at all. Thus, an even bigger population of humans could enjoy and benefit from its technology.


*Much of the information (and the photo added) in this post were found from an article on MIT’s Technology Review by Rachel Metz.

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This entry was posted on August 3rd, 2016 and is filed under Technology. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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