The touchy-feely world of the metaverse and future gadgets – The Economist

The touchy-feely world of the metaverse and future gadgets – The Economist

The Brave New World Aldous Huxley describes in his novel of that title features the “feelies”. In 1932, its year of publication, movies were turning into talkies. Feelies must have seemed a logical, if creepy, extension of that. The book alludes to a film at a local theatre with a love scene on a bearskin rug, in which the sensation of every hair of the bear is reproduced.

The feelies have still not arrived. But people are working on them. In computer games and virtual reality (VR), two heirs to cinema’s role in light entertainment, practitioners of the discipline of haptics are attempting to add a sense of touch to those of vision and hearing, to increase the illusion of immersion in a virtual world. In future, they hope, if you reach out to pluck an apple from a tree in such a paradise, your hand will no longer go through it. You will, rather, be able to feel and grasp the fruit, if not actually eat it. Conversely, if it is a paradise lost you are in, and a baddy hiding behind the apple tree shoots you, you will feel the bullet’s impact.

To experience all this a user will wear haptic clothing. The ambitious talk of whole-body haptic suits, but in the case of the apple, the tree and the gunman haptic gloves and a haptic vest would suffice. Moving a gloved hand creates corresponding movement of a user’s virtual hand, with sensations appropriate to objects “touched” being fed back via devices called haptic actuators, incorporated into the glove. Haptic vests similarly stimulate parts of the upper body.

Hand in glove

Actuators themselves come in a variety of forms. Those most widely used at the moment are ERMs (eccentric rotating masses) and LRAs (linear resonant actuators). An ERM is a tiny motor that drives a shaft fitted with an off-centre weight which causes the whole thing to vibrate when the shaft spins. An LRA uses an electromagnetic coil to shake a surface. Nowadays, these devices are employed for jobs like alerting smartphone users to incoming messages and reacting when a touchscreen is tapped. But adapting such well-understood technologies for use in VR and gaming should be fairly easy.

ERMs and LRASs are not, however, the only possible approaches to immersive haptics. For instance, OWO Game, a Spanish firm, is about to put on sale a haptic vest, worn next to the skin, that relies on electrical stimulation rather than vibrating actuators. It delivers tuneable levels of current to different parts of the torso. Besides creating tingling sensations, these can also cause muscles to contract. Effects replicable using this approach apparently include being shot, stabbed and blown up.

In Redmond, Washington, meanwhile, a firm called HaptX has reached for pneumatics, a technology many might think had seen its heyday. Bob Crockett, one of the company’s founders, explains that the firm needs compressed air to produce a big enough displacement of the skin …….


Virtual reality