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VR Gets an Element of Touch with Latest Synthetic Skin

Virtual reality has come a long way in terms of technological innovation and the capabilities it offers to users. Whilst it has offered many sensory experiences, the sense of touch has not been simulated within realistic VR environments before.

Until now, virtual reality has mostly relied on the senses of sight and hearing for creating environments. But a new development that brings in the element of touch is set to make experiences appear even more real for users.

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed an adjustable and lightweight wireless synthetic skin to deliver touch experiences in VR. It comes in the form of a 15sqcm patch that can be attached to any body part. It comes with actuators capable of simulating sensations by vibrating against human skin.

According to John Rogers, the co-leader of the research, virtual reality is a significant evolving technology. Speaking in a press release, he explained that VR users have been depending on just sight and sound for obtaining experiences. According to him, the VR development community has not put enough emphasis on skin sensations.

The sense of touch is the most effective in emotionally connecting people. – John Rogers

Haptic interfaces, a type of touch technology has been around for some time, and are capable of simulating physical sensations. They rely on vibrations for simulating sensations but are impractical due to their large sizes.

The main innovation with the synthetic VR skin was designing an actuator that is only a couple millimetres in thickness. The device requires a lot less energy and is so lightweight that it can stick to human skin surfaces without falling off. It can also draw power from inductive charging technology similar to that used in wireless smartphone chargers.

The device prototype was dissected in a paper released in Nature. It contains an arrangement of 32 actuators sitting between layers of flexible fabric that stick to one’s skin. Users can individually program and tune each of the actuators to change the levels of sensation.

A smartphone or tablet’s touch screen interface is used for wirelessly controlling the synthetic skin to transfer tactile sensations. The device has to be kept at a range of 30 to 50 centimetres from its antenna to function.

A video released by the researchers showed how the device could be utilised to help a mother stroke her child whilst video charring, transmit touch sensations for users with prosthetic arms, and create strike sensations whilst playing action games.

Currently, the device is capable of producing simplistic tactile sensations, but the researchers are hopeful of the platform being able to deliver sensations like twitches and temperature fluctuations. Their objective is to create a VR suit capable of delivering completely immersive virtual reality experiences. Miniaturising the actuators might be necessary to deliver entire body experiences.

Apart from the patch developed by Northwestern, another recent project also made waves in the domain of touch sensation technology. A team of Swiss scientists displayed a 500-nm-thick synthetic skin with actuators and soft sensors capable of real-time feedback.



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