Virtual reality offers a very immersive experience, but it always lacks a critical element: the sense of touch. In a world of remote learning and social distancing, tactile sensations are lacking, but perhaps not for much longer.
Researchers at Northwestern University have designed a way to mimic the feeling of human touch with an epidermal VR device. With a set of tiny programmable, vibrating components called actuators, the device adheres to the user’s skin like a bandage, using a silicone polymer material. The device can be placed on any part of the body. The number and location of devices depends on how the technology is used and for what purpose.
“Imagine the little buzzer on your Apple Watch,” says John Rogers, a Northwestern engineering professor who worked in technology with Yonggang Huang, also an engineering professor. “It’s like putting Apple Watches all over your body, but not in such a stiff shape, with that factor in a thin, skin-like shape, so what you feel is like a soft touch.”
Potential use cases of epidermal VR
Rogers and Huang originally created the epidermal VR device to monitor the progress of speech patterns and the swallowing of stroke survivors after physical rehabilitation. The device transmits information to the patient rehabilitation specialist and also warns the patient of irregular patterns of swallowing or speech through tactile feedback.
The researchers realized that if actuator arrays were programmable, “you could create an immersive experience that would be relevant to virtual reality, where your current systems are dominated by visual and auditory cues,” Rogers explains. “If you go beyond the eyes and ears and include touch, it could profoundly impact the impact of virtual reality or artificial reality, especially in the context of remote instruction and the rise of social media.”
For higher education institutions, the potential uses of this innovative technology are numerous. Epidermal VR applied to surgical training would offer tactile input from the instructor to help students more accurately understand proper positioning and movements. Training in physical therapy would also benefit from this technology.
“Tactile feedback could be provided remotely and gently to certain types of movements, to guide these movements in an instructive sense to improve therapy techniques, exercise methods, and limb positioning,” Rogers says.
He also imagines the use of epidermal RV within the creative arts, including instruction on dance and movement, or even “a tactile aspect to experiencing an art form”.
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The booming world of sports is another obvious candidate for epidermal RV, along with physical sport and music training. With VR devices that help students maintain correct postures, a distance teacher could guide a class through processes that use mechanical manipulation.
Although the battery-free device currently weighs only a few grams per 10 square inches, Rogers claims the platform will be thinner and lighter. Ultimately, users can use the device as a second fully programmable skin. Once ready for mass production in a couple of years, the device will be able to adapt to any size and shape and could even heat and cool the skin to more closely mimic the feeling of warmth in the fingers. of another person.