You Could Soon Feel the Sensation of Drinking Water in VR

Armed to the teeth

  • Researchers have modified a standard VR headset to direct haptic feedback to the wearer’s mouth.
  • In their experiments, they simulate raindrops, mud splatter, running water, and various other sensations.
  • Experts believe VR can no longer rely on enhanced visual experiences alone, and developers must accelerate efforts to rope in other senses as well.
man uses virtual reality glasses and has fun with it

Oliver Helbig / Getty Images

Experiencing virtual reality (VR) through handheld controllers alone could soon become passé as researchers push the boundaries to get more of the other senses into the game.

In one of the latest attempts, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group (FIG) have managed to recreate the sensation of touch in and around a user’s mouth with minimal modifications to a regular VR headset. The modifications add little weight to the headset, which the researchers plan to cut down even further before commercializing their mouth haptics headset.

"I think it’s really exciting that FIG understands the value of multi-sensory and also the role our lips and mouth play in our experiences," Aaron Wisniewski, CEO of OVR Technology, told Lifewire over email. "From eating and drinking to talking, emoting, and even kissing, the sensations our mouth offers us are extraordinary."

Lip Service

While virtual worlds are looking more realistic, the only real haptic feedback you can expect from the current generation of VR gear is an occasional vibration through the controllers. 

Researchers have been working for years to enhance the VR experience by involving the other senses. Wisniewski’s OVR Technology is working to add the sense of smell, while others are tuning vest-like wearables to enable people to feel more real-life sensations in virtual worlds.

Arguing that the mouth has been largely overlooked as a haptic target in VR, despite being second in terms of sensitivity and density of mechanoreceptors, only behind the fingertips, researchers at FIG have modified a VR headset to enable wearers to experience sensations like brushing teeth.

The researchers used a standard Oculus Quest 2 headset and laced it with an array of ultrasonic transducers. The contraption takes advantage of the mouth’s proximity to the headset and can work its magic without the need to run wires or don an extra accessory. 

Instead, the transducers create haptic feedback by sending acoustic pulses directly to the wearer’s mouth. The researchers claim that while such ultrasonic transducers have been previously used for haptic feedback, they’re the first to string them atop a standard headset and direct sensations of the mouth.

In their experiments, the researchers used their modified headset to simulate a single tap, pulses, swipes, and vibrations on the wearer’s teeth, tongue, and lips. 

"When coupled with coordinated graphical feedback, the effects are convincing, boosting realism and immersion," noted the researchers.

Hand to Mouth

The researchers have designed several custom VR experiences that demonstrate how their mouth haptics hardware can introduce more realism, though many of them appear to be rather unpleasant. 

Their demonstration video shows a person walking through spider webs, feeling the web and the spiders crawling across their face before they shoot them and have their guts splashed over their mouth. More relatable simulations include the feel of drinking water from a water fountain, coffee from a cup, smoking a cigarette, brushing teeth, and more.

Woman wearing a modified VR headset and drinking water from a fountain

Future Interfaces Group / Carnegie Mellon University

The study also shared the feedback from participants, all of whom believed the modified headset delivered a more immersive experience than one delivered through a standard headset. This despite the researchers themselves agreeing that their modified headset can only do so much since vibrations alone can’t simulate all the sensations the mouth can feel.

From eating and drinking to talking, emoting, and even kissing, the sensations our mouth offers us are extraordinary.

"I can’t speak to this particular technology without trying it, but when it comes to haptics’ ability to enhance our virtual experiences, the question isn’t "will it?" it’s, "what’s taking so long?" said Wisniewski.

He believes that VR developers have been focused on enhancing the visual aspect of VR at the expense of the other senses. 

"If our goal with immersive technology, like VR, is to create meaningful human experiences, then touch is non-negotiable," opined Wisniewski. "All human experience starts as sensory input, and the more sensory input we have, the more rich, meaningful, emotional, and effective the experience can be."

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