The Brave New World that Aldous Huxley describes in the novel of that title features “feelies”. In his 1932 when the film was released, the film was turning into a talkie. Feeley must have seemed a logical extension of that, albeit creepy. The book alludes to films in local theaters, including scenes of him loving on a bearskin rug, recreating the feel of each strand of bear fur.
Feeley has not yet arrived. But people are working on them. Computer games and virtual reality (VR), two fields that continue the role of cinema in the entertainment of light, practitioners in the field of haptics add tactile sensations to the visual and auditory senses to create a sense of immersion in virtual worlds. are trying to increase In the future, they hope, if you reach out to pick an apple from a tree like this in Paradise, your hand will never go through it. Rather, you can feel and grab the fruit without actually eating it. Conversely, if you’re in Paradise Lost and a buddy hiding behind an apple tree shoots you, you’ll feel the impact of the bullet.
To experience all this, users wear tactile clothing. A full-body haptic suit is ambitious, but for Ringo, the tree and Gunman’s haptic gloves and haptic vest are sufficient. Movements of the gloved hand create corresponding virtual hand movements of the user, with appropriate sensations for the ‘touched’ object fed back via devices built into the glove called haptic actuators. A haptic vest similarly stimulates parts of the upper body.
put on gloves
The actuators themselves also come in different shapes. The most widely used today are ERMs (eccentric rotating masses) and LRAs (linear resonant actuators). An ERM is a small motor that drives a shaft with off-center weights that vibrate the entire shaft as it rotates. LRA uses electromagnetic coils to shake the surface. Today, these devices are used to alert smartphone users of incoming messages, react when touchscreens are tapped, and more. But adapting such a well-known technology for use in VR and games should be fairly straightforward.
However, ERM and LRAS are not the only possible approaches to immersive haptics. For example, his Spanish company OWO Game is about to launch a haptic vest worn next to the skin that relies on electrical stimulation rather than vibration actuators. Provides adjustable levels of current to different parts of the fuselage. Besides causing a tingling sensation, these can also cause muscle contractions. included.
Meanwhile, in Redmond, Washington, a company called HaptX has dabbled in pneumatics. This is a technology that many might consider to have reached its heyday. One of the company’s founders, Bob Crockett, said the company needed compressed air to generate large enough skin displacements to achieve realistic tactile sensations. I’m explaining. No other haptic device can do that, he says.
G1-branded HaptX gloves pump air in and out through a network of tubes that inflate and deflate 135 tiny balloons built into each glove. The most sensitive of these balloons is the fingertip balloon, which is less than 1mm in diameter. The glove fingers also contain pneumatic “exotendons” that brake the finger movement, thereby simulating the sensation of touching a solid object. The compressor and electronics that power the system are housed in the backpack, allowing the user freedom of movement.
None of this is cheap. A pair of G1 gloves would cost him at least $4,500. However, the first market is enterprise, not retail. Early customers are expected to include organizations that are already using VR for training and want to improve their experience. For example, a medical school that teaches surgical techniques to surgeons, or a workshop that repairs jet engines. Another use is to enable collaboration between engineers living in different parts of the world. For example, people working on a new car can meet in a virtual lab, tinker with virtual components, and hand over virtual copies of their designs.
But there are other reasons why HaptX chose pneumatics. It’s about more than just making gloves. The company has plans for a full-body haptic suit and believes pneumatic actuation is easier to scale than one based on electric motors. I don’t want to go into details, but users can wear an exoskeleton and create sensations throughout their entire body. For example, the user would feel the weight of the virtual object, including the force of pulling the user’s hand down.
VR and gaming are the high end of haptics. But how to improve haptic feedback in non-virtual worlds is also important. Smartphones, computers, and touchscreens that are ubiquitous in cars, fast food restaurants, and more could all benefit from haptic feedback.
Amsterdam-based company Aito wants to offer just that. We manufacture haptic systems for laptops and other digital devices. These employ actuators based on piezoelectric materials that contract or expand in response to voltage, creating small amounts of motion. And the process works in reverse as well. When squeezed, the piezoelectric crystal produces an electric current. This means that piezo materials can be used as both actuators and sensors.
Aito’s actuator has three layers. Their covers are plastic, glass or wooden. Beneath it is a capacitive grid that determines the position of the finger touching the device from the changes created by the grid’s electric field. The third layer is a matrix of piezo activators. All three combined make it just 1.8mm thick enough to be built into touchscreens and touchpads.
When the actu-sensor detects a finger, it reacts appropriately depending on the position and pressure of the finger in question. Clicks can occur. Or rumble. Alternatively, forming the top layer of the screen into a stable but scratchable surface will make your finger or plastic stylus feel like a fountain pen gliding over paper or painting with a brush on a canvas. .
With the introduction of portable devices with folding screens, the bottom half could be used as a haptic keyboard. Aito’s boss, his Nedko Ivanov, can be programmed to provide a mechanical tactile response like his keyboard, but with additional features. For example, pressing harder will capitalize letters, eliminating the need for a shift key.
This also allows the device to be slimmer and lighter. Also, the same machine can be sold in different locations without changing the hardware. Screen-based haptic keyboards can be programmed to use the character set appropriate for the local language.
Some of these new features will also find their way into automobiles, especially as on-screen icons replace traditional dashboard switches. Without a satisfying mechanical click, it’s hard to tell whether such an icon is activated or deactivated without taking your eyes off the road.
Haptics also have another potentially big application. Pornographers were the early pioneers of the Internet (and, in fact, film and photography before it). So it’s no surprise that many of them are now working on virtual sex encounters known in the industry as ‘telegirdniks’. For example, some companies that make sex toys have started adding Bluetooth-enabled items to their products, allowing couples to link up remotely, so to speak. Maybe Huxley wasn’t so far from money after all.
© 2023 The Economist Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From The Economist, published under license. Original content can be found at https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2023/02/01/the-touchy-feely-world-of-the-metaverse-and-future-gadgets.