Feeling Virtual

While virtual reality has given us whole new worlds to explore, it hasn't really fulfilled its promise to fully immerse us within those worlds. VR allows us to see and hear the virtual worlds, but as far as feeling, smelling, or even tasting them, we're not there yet. However, the guys at Microsoft may have brought us one step closer.

In a whitepaper, a team from the company has revealed two hand-held controllers that could allow us to feel virtual worlds, providing better "haptic feedback."  These two controllers, NormalTouch and TextureTouch, use actuators that translate virtual images into mechanical renditions. While they can't yet recreate the full virtual objects, they are able to recreate what passes under one finger.

NormalTouch uses a small platform attached to the controller to provide "haptic and force feedback," moving according to the surface it is passing over in the VR scenario. But it is not just limited to simulating virtual objects. NormalTouch can also enact any force you apply to it within the virtual world, allowing you to push virtual objects around a platform, for example.

TextureTouch works in a similar way, but in lieu of NormalTouch's tiltable platform, this controller uses a 4×4 matrix of actuated pins. By moving each pin based on the object beneath it, the controller can simulate the texture of multiple objects, according to Wired.

A Whole New World

The whole appeal of VR is that is can immerse the user in a virtual environment. But while current commercial systems can stimulate the eyes and ears, touch sensation is no more than the vibrations of traditional game controllers. Microsoft found that these newly introduced systems "significantly [increased] the accuracy of VR interaction," improving on the overall experience of the VR worlds being created.

It remains to be seen whether NormalTouch and TextureTouch will ever be available for purchase, or if consumers will accept them into the VR market. What we can know for sure is that some of the biggest players in tech are making progress, and further improvements to VR controllers mean that, eventually, we'll have devices that can render fine textures, like silk, felt, or a lion's mane — all you'll have to do is reach out and touch them.

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