Until recently, the focus of Extended Reality (XR) technologies, which encompasses Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality, has been to provide simulated audiovisual experiences in a physical space. And while the industry is constantly looking to improve how we see and hear in the XR world, there are new technologies, such as haptics, that are bringing the sense of touch into the virtual space as well.
Haptic technology allows users to experience such things as vibrations and motion. Haptic devices are already available that allow users to feel hot and cold temperatures, simulating such environments as deserts and arctic snowstorms. Some devices let users experience impact sensations, such as feeling punches in a virtual boxing match. As haptic technology continues to develop, more educational and corporate applications are being explored, leading to XR tactile sensing in classrooms and offices.
The Latest in Haptic Technology
The latest haptic devices are enabling increasingly realistic tactile feedback in an XR environment. Many of the industry's latest innovations were on display at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. At the show, US-based HaptX demonstrated its haptic gloves, which use compressed air to simulate a realistic sense of touch.
In their demonstration, users wearing haptic gloves were able to experience the sensation of rain falling on their hands. Users were also able to run their hands across a field of wheat and feel the simulated texture of the plants and pick up a small animal on a farm and feel its simulated movement. HaptX gloves are designed for the enterprise market. They could one day be used for medical students to allow them to feel a simulated human body while learning to perform surgical procedures.
Other haptic gloves for corporate applications were also featured at CES 2020. China-based Dexta Robotics showed off its haptic gloves, which it is designing for the aerospace, corporate training, education, and healthcare industries. In its demonstration, the company exhibited a training program for flight attendants using haptic technology. The technology allows attendants to feel such things as the weight of an aircraft emergency exit door when learning how to operate it.
The ability to sense temperatures in XR is also becoming a reality. South Korean startup TEGway manufactures a product known as ThermoReal, which allows users to experience the sensations of hot, cold, and even pain in a virtual environment. ThermoReal consists of haptic gloves, sleeves, and a forehead band which uses a thermoelectric current to generate high or low temperatures.
Using this system, a user can feel cold when holding an ice cube in XR or the sensation of heat and pain when running one's finger through a simulated candle. Company designers believe there are many corporate and educational applications of the technology.
Tactile gloves are not the only haptic wearables on the market at the moment. Some companies are offering full-body wearables to provide an enhanced tactile experience in XR. For example, UK-based VR Electronics makes a full-body haptic suit known as the TeslaSuit, which provides electro-stimulation to the body to recreate experiences in XR. A user who wears this suit could undertake corporate training in challenging environments, which allows workers to train in weather conditions such as heavy rain and strong wind. TeslaSuit can also be used for athletic training and physical therapy.
There are also some early initiatives to stimulate the senses of smell in XR. Smell simulations add even more realism in a virtual world. For example, US startup FeelReal is currently offering a multisensory mask that allows users to experience smells in an XR environment. This mask is designed to release one of their 255 unique odors via small vials of liquid in tandem with an XR experience, so a user can smell such things as gunpowder when firing a weapon or burned rubber when driving a racecar.
Early research has demonstrated that simulating even the sense of taste is possible in an XR environment. Researchers at the National University of Singapore created a “digital lollipop,” which consisted of a spoon equipped with electrodes that simulate the taste sensations of sweet, sour, savory, and bitter by stimulating taste receptors on the tongue. So, going forward, users may be able to experience all five senses in an XR environment, which will bring the technology many steps closer to reality.