Soon, we'll be able to feel the walls in VR games, thanks to electrical muscle stimulation. Researchers from the Hasso-Plattner-Institut may have found a way for us to pick up boxes and push open doors in the VR while actually feeling their weight.
Men and women of science are a fascinating bunch. Coming up with new uses for the technology that already exists, and with problems for some future technology to fix, sometimes seems to be more like their hobby than an actual job. At the CHI'17 conference in Denver, a team of researchers from the Hasso-Plattner-Institut in Potsdam revealed their quest to figure out "how to add haptics to walls and other heavy objects in virtual reality".
They turned to electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to try and make the player's hands interact with walls and heavy objects in a more natural way, while in the virtual reality. And why wouldn't they? It's right there. Muscles contract as a reaction to the electrical impulses going through them.
A wide range of effects can be accomplished by stimulating different groups of muscles at various times, depending on the situation. For example: "When pushing a button mounted to a vertical surface, for example, the system actuates biceps and wrist."
While trying to make a "wall", they had it all worked out - in theory at least. When some tests were being run, it became clear that the EMS was far too weak to stop the user's hand from going though the wall, and if they were to crank it up it would start to feel "unnatural" as the user would become aware of the different muscles being stimulated.
Two alternative designs were then created:
The soft object design: a "reasonably low" cut-off to the intensity of the EMS was chosen and the users would be under the impression they are touching a soft surface.
The repulsion object design: a reduction of signal was the way to go here. A short EMS pulse is sent out and it pushes the user's hand "backwards, removing it from the virtual object it is trying to touch."
What a time to be alive, right?