Virtual reality and haptic devices

In the field of product design and user experience, virtual reality (VR) tools offer endless possibilities to create immersive environments. Combining VR technology with haptic devices also pushes the boundaries of traditional interfaces, allowing the development of more realistic scenarios capable of simulating physical sensations, and achieving a more intuitive, emotional, and memorable overall user experience.

Tom Carter, CEO and co-founder of the haptics company UltraLeap, maintains that “for the physical and digital worlds to converge, the way we interact with them must also converge.” Haptic systems generate feedback between the user and the device, transform virtual elements into tangible objects via our sense of touch and bring them closer to our perceived physical reality.

In this post, we’re going to talk about the main haptic devices out there, and how they can transform the way people interact with products and services.

1. Tactile or kinesthetic feedback

We use our sense of touch to know the shape, weight or texture of everything that surrounds us. Psychologically speaking, touching something provides more confidence and security in knowing an object than by just seeing it.

For this reason, there are already numerous tactile gloves available that allow you to interact with virtual reality environments. One of the more well-known products is the SenseGlove, a device capable of generating sensations linked to the size, rigidity and resistance of digital elements, which can be naturally held, pushed or squeezed. It has been used by brands such as Volkswagen to train employees in vehicle assembly, or by Procter & Gamble Health to empathize with patients with nerve injuries.

Other haptic interfaces that are based on kinesthesia (something understood as human movement) are the movement tracking systems from the company Ultraleap or the WeTac haptic glove: an adhesive hydrogel with thirty-two electrodes that are placed on the hand and fingers like a second skin. This product, developed by a group of researchers from the City University of Hong Kong, generates electrical currents that simulate different tactile sensations and allow a wide variety of gestures to be captured.

Photograph of WeTac, a hydrogel haptic glove.
Source: Distrito Metaverso

2. Vibrotactile systems

While the tactile system involves the recreation of different sensations, a vibrotactile system offers a simpler experience with the generation of controlled vibrations. A widely-known example is the small vibration emitted by mobile phones after a click on the screen, especially during writing processes, which simulates the tactile sensation of a physical button and improves usability.

This resource has been widely explored by the video game sector, where we find products such as the Rumble Pak for the Nintendo 64 console (1997), the DualShock Controller for PlayStation 2 (2000), the Sidewinder Force Feedback joystick (1995) or the Microsoft Sidewinder Gamepad (1997), among many other more recent examples.

In the field of virtual reality and user experience, some examples of vibrotactile devices are:

  • The Haptic Vest developed by Woojer, a haptic vest with vibration motors that allow you to feel impacts, blows and vibrations in different parts of the body. It is designed for gaming activities and for immersive viewing of movies and concerts. It also allows you to listen or compose music feeling the bass frequencies that it emits over the body.
  • The Teslasuit, a full body suit that captures movements and provides vibrotactile feedback to the wearer. It provides realistic muscle stimulation in VR environments and monitors the body’s responses, enabling advanced health analysis. It is used by more than fifty research centers in the aerospace, automotive, medical and sports sectors.
  • The 3D Rudder, a motion control device that is placed on the ground. The user interacts with the digital world from a seated position and via the feet, which receive the vibrational feedback. It frees up the hands and encourages a freer, more natural and precise feeling of displacement than using traditional joysticks. Although it is a PlayStation VR technology, it could be used for navigation environments through interfaces in two or three dimensions.
Example of use of the 3D Rudder foot platform, which allows movement in the virtual environment and vibrates in response to user actions. 
Source: PlayStation.Blog

3. Thermal Haptic Devices

Thermal haptic devices offer a tactile experience with the sensations of hot and cold. These products simulate thermal sensations on the user’s skin using thermoelectric and controlled airflow technologies, taking advantage of the nervous system’s ability to form physical and emotional responses to changes in temperature.

A good example is the Ultrahaptics STRATOS Explore, a platform that combines tactile and thermal feedback to provide an immersive user experience. Intended for research and development, it can be deployed in a wide variety of settings to enhance other products and deliver innovative experiences. It allows the creation of virtual buttons and sliders, as well as the configuration of vibrations and haptic alerts. It can also create sensations linked to textures and elements such as lightning, fire, clouds or bubbles.

Another interesting product is the Feelreal VR Mask, an accessory that fits onto virtual reality headsets and generates sensations of heat, cold, rain, wind, vibration, and up to 255 different smells! Our sense of smell provides a more intense neurological reaction, capable of stimulating memory, emotions and, as it is linked to the sense of taste, experiencing flavours too.

Promotional photography with the features of the Feelreal VR Mask accessory. 
Source: Kickstarter

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