New data glove lets users feel virtual objects

Data gloves can be used to visualize movements in a virtual environment. But so far they have hardly been able to convey touch. A new data glove now also gives users haptic feedback. If the virtual finger touches a virtual object, the real finger also receives feedback from the glove within fractions of a second. You can imagine what effect this will have on VR Sex.

With a new type of data glove, wearers can feel the shape of virtual objects. South Korean researchers have developed a glove weighing almost 160 grams that enables haptic feedback. The team presents the device, which they tested on a virtual chess program, in the scientific journal “Scientific Reports”. Such data gloves could not only make games more realistic in the future, but could also help in the training of surgeons.

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In simulations of a virtual reality (VR), special headsets have so far provided visual impressions of an environment, while data gloves have transmitted the user’s movements to a screen. However, the gloves have hardly provided any haptic feedback so far, writes Youngsu Cha’s team from Korea University in Seoul. At best, wearers could feel rough surfaces.

Electrical signals are converted into pressure

The researchers now present a lightweight data glove with which wearers can feel the shape of virtual objects. Similar to previous, similar gloves, flexible sensors made of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) register the movements of the wearer on three fingers: the diffraction of the finger changes the electrical voltage at the sensor. The resulting movement pattern is transmitted via Bluetooth in real time to the virtual hand on the screen.

Now the feedback is new: If the virtual finger touches a virtual object, the real finger also receives feedback from the glove within fractions of a second. This is ensured by a soft pneumatic actuator – a unit that converts electrical signals into pressure. “Soft actuators have various advantages, including low weight and flexibility,” the researchers write.

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The actuators attached to the fingertips are made of the commercially available silicone rubber Ecoflex. They each have a diameter of 15 millimeters, a height of 5 millimeters and weigh 0.57 grams. They are made up of a central part and an outer ring. If the virtual finger touches a virtual object, the actuator switches on. Then electrical voltage shifts air from the outer ring to the center, which bulges the silicone by about a tenth of a millimeter, which the wearer feels at the tip of the finger. When the virtual object – the jumper’s chessman in the experiment – is released, the actuator switches itself off again.

The data glove weighs a total of 156 grams. “We expect that the glove we developed will be combined in several ways with different VR software,” the team writes.

Significant progress, but commercial use takes time

Holger Böse of the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research (ISC) in Würzburg, Germany, speaks of a significant progress compared to earlier approaches with much higher weight and bulky structure. The scientific and technical director of the Smart Materials Center at the ISC says that the shape of an object can be seen even better with the device if more actuators can be felt with the fingers.

“The road to commercial use is still long,” emphasizes Böse. In addition to playing games, future applications could include preparing surgeons for operations during their training or simulating assembly processes in factories and thus optimizing them.