A “second skin” for feeling objects in virtual reality

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“Feeling” objects in a virtual world… it’s a fantasy that has been around for a long time, and which has already fueled a great deal of research. This time, a team of researchers from Hong Kong has developed a true “second skin” that could allow a quality personalized touch experience in a virtual reality world.

Improving the virtual experience with tactile sensation has become a hot topic, but today’s haptic devices typically remain bulky and entangled in wired systems “, explains the City University of Hong Kong, in a press release detailing the project. The new device developed by a team of specialized researchers aims to overcome these inconveniences. Named WeTac, it looks like a “patch” applied directly to the skin, in order to reduce the feeling of bulk. The idea is to have a “second skin” which directly transmits the sensations to the body of the user, by means of a weak electric current. The team’s work has been published in nature machine intelligence.

This technology could obviously find use in virtual reality video games, but not only. The researchers are also considering applications in remote social activities, training modules, or even remote robotic control. ” Tactile feedback has great potential, along with visual and auditory feedback, in virtual reality. So we tried to make the haptic interface thinner, softer, more compact and wireless, so that it can be used freely on the hand, like a second skin. says Yu Xinge, an associate professor at CityU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), who led the research, about the project.


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The skin-integrated wireless electro-touch system consists of two parts: a soft control unit (right), attached to the forearm, and the hand patch (left). © Yu Xinge et al./City University of Hong Kong

The wireless device is made up of two parts. A flexible, miniaturized control unit is attached to the forearm. A patch based on hydrogel, lined with electrodes, constitutes the second key element. This serves as a haptic interface and is applied to the skin: the hand, for the moment. The driver unit weighs just over 19 grams and measures 5cm by 5cm, with a thickness of 2mm. As for the patch, its thickness is 1 mm, and it is very flexible in order to be able to follow the movements of the hand.

A personalized touch

The particularity of this technology is also that it seeks to bring a personalization of the touch according to the user. ” Electrotactile stimulation is a good method to provide effective virtual touch to users explains Yu Xinge. ” However, as individuals have different sensitivities, the same feedback force may be felt differently in the hands of different users. “. In other words, no one wants to feel like they’re being electrocuted to feel something. “ So we need to customize the feedback settings accordingly to provide a universal tool for all users and eliminate another major bottleneck of current haptic technology. “, therefore specifies the scientist.

second skin feel objects virtual reality
In an augmented reality scenario, a virtual mouse jumps forward and briefly lands on each point of the hand. This hand patch, with hydrogel-based electrodes, features 32 electro-tactile stimulation pixels on the side of the palm, making it easy to map threshold currents for different users. © Yu Xinge et al. /City University of Hong Kong

According to the researchers, the flexibility of the device makes it easy to map “threshold currents” for users. In other words, it is possible to adjust the patch to obtain a range of sensation intensity that corresponds to them. This will help avoid causing pain, or getting a result that is too weak to feel. For more sensitivity, the researchers distributed 32 “stimulation pixels”. The space between two electrodes is only 13 millimeters, which makes it possible to nuance the sensations even on the scale of the palm of a hand.

And for the worried, the device has several built-in safety measures to protect users from electric shock, and the temperature of the device is kept in a relatively low range of 27-35.5°C to avoid causing thermal discomfort during the continuous operation “, specifies the press release. It has been tested in different virtual scenarios, leading users to grab a ball, or touch a cactus. Of course, a long development is still necessary, but Yu Xinge affirms that it is a powerful tool to provide virtual touch and inspiration for the development of metaversehuman-machine interface (HMI) and other fields “.

Source : nature machine intelligence

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A “second skin” for feeling objects in virtual reality

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