Between the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, we've come a long way towards being able to step in to virtual worlds -- but touching those false realities is a different matter. Solving this means finding a haptic technology that can adapt to needs of a constantly changing virtual environment. One PhD student's solution? Use a robot arm.
Rigging up a $25,000 Baxter robot to an HTC Vive may not be a practical haptic feedback setup, but it sure looks effective. Scott Devin, PhD candidate at Queen's University Belfast, built the setup as a proof-of-concept 'encounter haptic system' that actively follows a VR user's pushes against them at appropriate moments to simulate physical objects in a virtual space. In Devin's demo, this served to provide force feedback and weight to users pushing virtual wooden blocks off of a VR shelf -- gently pushing back against the player's HTC Vive controller as it moved the digital blocks.
It's a bit of a ridiculous setup for such a simple demo, but it wasn't designed to be practical. "It's definitely not for consumers," Devin told Digital Trends, citing the price of the robot arm. "We're showing what's possible. It might give some people with more resources a few ideas. Imagine a robotic arm attached to the ceiling in each of the four corners of your VR room: you'd have force feedback for 360 degrees." It's a practically unreasonable idea for the time being, but such a system would provide excellent hapitc feedback -- if someone were bold enough to build it. "I think you have to dream big," Devin says. "Why not?"