For those of you that are familiar with gadgets like the Oculus or Samsung’s Gear VR, you know what an amazing experience entering into the world of virtual reality can be. A plethora of apps, games, demos and simulations exist to offer the wearer an immersive and lifelike experience like no other. One can easily switch from wandering around the mind of a musician, á la the Magic School Bus, to flying through locations like the Grand Canyon or outer space, which offer seemingly limitless possibilities for exploration. There are even apps that allow you to simulate more physical endeavors, such as playing soccer or fighting in a boxing match. And while these more interactive apps are incredibly cool in their own right, they are missing one key ingredient – the ability to provide the illusion of actually interacting with your body. Imagine, for example, that you’ve recreated your favorite boxing match of all time. You’re completely immersed in the bout - you bob, you weave; then BLAM! - you get hit with a right hook intended to knock your proverbial lights out. Only there was no “BLAM”, you didn’t physically feel a thing – talk about taking you out of the moment. Your once fully immersive experience has now left you wanting. A team of researchers at the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) lab in Germany want to right this virtual wrong (see what I did there) and have just announced a prototype of a device called Impacto, which would add real feel to virtual reality.
Patrick Baudisch, who leads the HCI lab, says “We want the user wearing a VR headset to believe that he was really hit by something”. In order to achieve this result, which he says is “kind of an illusion”, the team developed a small band that can be worn around the arm, leg or foot of a virtual reality user. Take for example that boxing match I mentioned earlier. In a demo using the Oculus Rift and a VR boxing game, HCI was able to demonstrate the various sensations that could be achieved through wearing the Impacto band; most notably in how physical sensations were delivered to the wearer in the form of basic haptic feedback (taps or vibrations on the skin) and electrical muscle stimulation, which push or pull the wearers limb in a way that simulates physical impact. Altogether, this technology behind Impacto serves to provide the physical sensation of being hit. Baudisch says simply “You see your opponent land a punch, you feel something on your skin, and your arm flies backwards”.
For now the Impacto is nothing more than a proof of concept invention, which HCI hopes will show that a small, portable device is capable of creating the same or at least similar results to those found in bulkier, far more expensive technology. At its best, the prototype is currently only convincing in creating physical illusions with “impacts” of 200 milliseconds or less, a number that would need to increase to give the user with the uninterrupted experience that HCI hopes to provide. And according to Baudisch, that’s the plan – as products like Google Cardboard make VR cheaper and more accessible to the masses, additional sensory dimensions will need to come into play to support the notion of full immersion. Professor of Mechanical Engineering Judy Vance worked with Impacto and had perhaps the most eye-opening comment regarding its role in VR. “Fred Brooks once wrote that virtual reality will have arrived when you can walk down the aisle of a virtual airplane and stub your toe on the seat. This technology would do that.”
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