Technology is making great strides in engaging our eyes and ears in virtual worlds, but touch is more difficult. City University of Hong Kong engineers have developed WeTac, a thin, wearable electronic "skin" that provides haptic feedback to users in virtual and augmented reality. It can blow away the plethora of wearable (and ridiculous) devices that allow users to touch and manipulate virtual objects today.
How does WeTac work? What can we "touch"?
The WeTac system consists of an adhesive hydrogel that is placed on the hand and fingers. It is connected to a small battery (wireless rechargeable) and a Bluetooth communication system located on the forearm. The hydrogel has 32 electrodes scattered across the hand, thumb and fingers, through which electrical currents are transmitted to create tactile sensations. By stimulating different combinations of these electrodes at different intensities, WeTac can simulate a variety of experiences: such as touching and grasping a tennis ball, or feeling a virtual mouse walk on your hand. Sensations can also be heightened to become uncomfortable (but not painful), providing negative feedback for actions such as touching a (always virtual) cactus.
What can we do about it?
The team says this system can be used in conjunction with virtual or augmented reality, opening up the possibility for a number of innovative applications. I pass over everything that we could touch during our raids through VR or AR video games (hunting Pokémon would take on another meaning): not to mention the erotic market. I limit myself to saying that one of the most interesting and "serious" fields of application is that of the remote control of robots. Being able to get tactile feedback when a robot grabs objects at a distance can greatly speed up the application of this tool. WeTac could also be used to help people learn new skills, like surgery or flying an airplane, in a more immersive and realistic way. Furthermore, it could also be used to provide remote support to people with disabilities or to help operators work in hazardous environments
If you want to see WeTac in action, find the video below. The research was published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence e I link it to you here. We just have to wait to "touch" this innovation.