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Touching the Virtual

Gloria Wang

Virtual reality has improved by leaps and bounds in the past decade. From striking visuals to enthralling audio, the virtual world experience is becoming more and more similar to our reality. But it has been a great challenge to move beyond visual and auditory sensations and incorporate the sense of touch into virtual reality. 

Now, researchers have developed a technology that uses the skin as a sensory interface to enhance the VR experience. In a 2019 Nature paper, Yu et al. present a new technology that uses a soft, lightweight sheet of electronic actuators— mechanical components that convert electric currents into vibrations— to create an interface that can interact with a user’s skin to create a virtual sense of touch (Yu et al. 2019). 

Their technology is constructed in a multilayer stack. The first layer consists of a thin, soft, adhesive layer that acts as an interface to the skin. The second, a silicone-encapsulated wireless control system that receives wirelessly transmitted power, and an interconnected array of actuators. And the third, a breathable, stretchable fabric coated with silicone that acts as a firm, damage preventing support to protect the functional materials and components. The silicone coating is a skin-tone coloration to satisfy the aesthetical appeal of the device (Yu et al. 2019).

The sensations achieved by such devices are produced through vibrations from frequencies ranging from 100 to 300 Hz. This range provides the strongest sensations on the human skin. With optimized designs, the researchers have reduced the voltage needed to induce a notable sensory response from about 100 mW to 1.75 mW (Yu et al. 2019).

These type of epidermal VR technologies will help in fields ranging from social media and communications, to gaming and entertainment, and to clinical medicine, rehabilitation and recovery. It allows a more nuanced experience in video calls, allows gamers to feel physical impact from the virtual world, and allows users with prosthetic limbs to feel a representation of touch. The sense of touch that is replicated through these epidermal VR technologies can qualitatively add to one’s experience with VR, far beyond anything audio and visual effects can offer.


Works Cited

Tao, X. (2019). Virtual and augmented reality enhanced by touch. Nature, 575(7783), 453-454. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03506-3

Yu, X., Xie, Z., Yu, Y. et al. Skin-integrated wireless haptic interfaces for virtual and augmented reality. Nature 575, 473–479 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1687-0

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