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Every few days it seems that developers and researchers are inching us closer to that Tron-like experience in virtual reality. About a week ago we reported on a VR technology that could translate your facial features onto an avatar in real time. A few days ago we told you about a glove called the Maestro, which uses motors to create resistance on your fingers to simulate touching or holding virtual objects. It was noted that the Maestro could not duplicate the weight of an object, but that the same concept of resistance could be applied to the entire arm to simulate the sensation of weight.
As if on cue, a group of scientists from Germany has revealed that it is developing a haptic system that can mimic walls or the lifting and pushing of heavy objects. The researchers are from the Hasso-Plattner-Institut in Potsdam and demonstrated their system at the Computer-Human Interaction conference in Denver, Colorado.
According to Engadget, the device is essentially “a medical-grade eight-channel muscle stimulator (EMS) installed in a backpack.”
An EMS is a machine that is commonly used in physical therapy treatments to stimulate the muscles. It consists of several electrodes (eight in this case) that send mild electrical impulses to the muscles which causes them to contract. If the right muscles are stimulated, the EMS could duplicate the feeling of pushing against a wall or lifting something heavy.
In early tests, users reported that the sensation of pushing against a wall in VR felt more like “a magnet pulling the hand backwards,” which was not what they were trying to achieve.
By experimenting with the amount of current and the duration of the shock, they were able to create a feeling of something solid being there and also a simulated spongy feel as well. The researchers believe that when combined with appropriate visual stimuli via VR, it can create a convincing simulation (see video above).
Pedro Lopes, one of the researchers on the project stated, “The major potential here is that this is something you can have with very little hardware.”
However, the device (in a backpack remember) interfaces with a VR headset, in this case, a Samsung GearVR via USB and needs hand trackers and a motion capture system as well. “Very little hardware” must be a scientific term meaning you do not need an entire lab. The device is definitely not ready for in-home gaming.
Researchers and developers continually work on making our VR experience more realistic, but the question is: do mainstream gamers even want this? Even if one was to separate the VR gamers from the mainstream, do VR users honestly want a system that they need to install in an empty room? Do they physically want to move large blocks and bump into virtual walls, or are they just content to sit on their couch and be able to have 360 degrees of independent vision? While a Tron-like experience is interesting and somewhat exciting in concept, it does not seem very practical for in-home use at this point.