New Tech Lets You Feel VR

Reach out and touch someone

Key Takeaways

  • A new device could let you feel virtual reality by spraying chemicals onto your skin. 
  • A growing number of so-called 'haptic' gadgets are designed to enhance virtual reality. 
  • Meta (formerly Facebook) recently announced that it's working on developing haptic gloves for VR.
Someone using virtual reality inside a bubble, and reaching out as if to touch something.

janiecbros / Getty Images

Virtual reality (VR) could soon get a lot more realistic. 

Researchers have developed a new way to make you feel what's happening in a virtual world when you put on VR goggles. A device applies chemicals to your skin to trigger responses. It's part of a growing wave of so-called 'haptic' gadgets designed to enhance virtual reality. 

"Humans typically use all their senses to understand the world around them," Todd Richmond, a VR expert and IEEE member, told Lifewire in an email interview. "In virtual environments, visuals typically dominate an experience, but humans notice things that are missing. Bringing haptics to VR can help deepen immersion."

Get Touched

Haptic devices are intended to let you feel real sensations in virtual reality. Haptic devices already on the market range from gloves to bodysuits that hook up to VR headsets. 

Scientists at the Human Computer Integration Lab at the University of Chicago have developed a way to trigger ch. In a recent paper, the researchers described wearables that can be worn anywhere on the body. 

The wearables use silicone patches and micropumps to deliver five different chemicals to the surface of the skin that produce five unique physical sensations at the point of contact. "Upon absorbing these stimulants, which contain safe and small doses of key active ingredients, receptors in the user's skin are chemically triggered, rendering distinct haptic sensations," the researchers wrote on their web page

Menthol creates the sensation that the skin is being cooled, which could simulate being outside on a cold day, while capsaicin, the chemical that makes foods spicy, provides a feeling of warmth. 

"Haptics get us one step closer to full immersion and 'being there,'" Richmond said. "While the challenge of uncanny valleys will remain daunting, engaging more of the human senses in the virtual world gets closer to replicating—but not replacing—the analog world."

"Haptics get us one step closer to full immersion and 'being there.'"

Feel the Metaverse

While haptics might enhance realism, the technology is difficult to integrate into the current generation of headsets, Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO of the VR company Virtuleap told Lifewire. 

"Replicating the sense of touch is a very elaborate feat, so I don't see it as a feature that will be readily available anytime soon," he added. 

Despite the challenges, companies are racing to get haptic devices into the hands of users. 

Meta (formerly Facebook) recently announced that it's developing haptic gloves to enhance virtual reality. 

"The goal is to one day pair the gloves with your VR headset for an immersive experience like playing in a concert or poker game in the metaverse, and eventually they'd work with your AR glasses," the company said in the announcement. 

Meta's glove can work as a VR controller and uses 15 ridged and inflatable plastic pads known as actuators, according to The Verge. The pads fit on the user's palm, under their fingers, and their fingertips. The back includes white markers that let cameras track how the fingers move through space, and it uses internal sensors to capture how the wearer's fingers are bending.

Someone rearranging a model of a city in virtual reality using touch.

Coneyl Jay / Getty Images

Many industries are working to integrate VR with haptics. For example, the military is an eager customer for haptics as a training aid to make virtual reality combat and medical care more realistic. 

Engineering and Computer Simulations, an Orlando, Florida-based company, recently announced the opening of a new lab to test new sensory technology for the military. The haptics integration could allow combat medics to improve their quality of training to potentially save more lives, the company said in the news release. 

In the future, advanced haptics could allow users to feel like they are actually transported to another place while using virtual reality, Richmond said. 

"Telepresence and persistent virtual environments will change our definitions of 'reality' and will also challenge our concepts of policy, norms, and society," he added. 

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