Although great technological advances are taking place to engage our eyes and ears in the virtual worlds, engaging other senses like touch is a different ballgame altogether. At City University in Hong Kong, engineers have developed a wearable, thin electronic skin called WeTac. It offers tactile feedback in AR and VR.
At present, there are several wearable devices with designs that allow users to manipulate virtual objects while receiving haptic feedback from them. However, not only are these devices heavy and big but also require tangles of wire and complex setups.
In contrast, the WeTac system is one of the neatest arrangements among all others. The engineers have made it from a rubbery hydrogel that makes it stick to the palm and on the front of the fingers. The device connects to a small battery and has a Bluetooth communications system that sits on the forearm in a 5-square-centimeter patch. The user can recharge the battery wirelessly.
The hydrogel has 32 electrodes embedded in it. The electrodes are spread out all over the palm, the thumb, and the fingers. The system sends electrical currents through these electrodes to produce tactile sensations.
According to the WeTac team, they can stimulate a specific combination of these electrodes at varying strengths. This allows them to simulate a wide range of experiences. They have demonstrated this by simulating catching a tennis ball or generating the feel of a virtual mouse moving across the hand. They claim they can ramp up the sensation to uncomfortable levels, but not to the extent of making them painful. This can give negative feedback, such as a reaction to touching a digital cactus.
According to the researchers, they can pair the system up with either augmented or virtual reality. They can thus simulate some intriguing use cases. For instance, it is possible to feel the rhythm of slicing through VR blocks in Beat Saber, or catch Pokemon while petting a Pikachu in the park in AR.
Using the WeTac system, it may be possible to control robots remotely or transmit to the human operator the tactile sensations of the robot as it grips something.
Syntouch has a new tactile sensor that performs three important functions. First, it measures the impedance using a flexible bladder placed against an array of sensing electrodes fixed in a rigid core. This arrangement helps to measure deformity, somewhat like the human finger, using its ductile skin and flesh against the rigid bone structure inside it. The finger uses its fingernails to cause bulges in the skin for detecting shear forces.
Second, the tactile sensor registers micro-vibrations using a pressure sensor that the sensor core has mounted on its inside. This enables measurements of surface texture and roughness. The fingerprints are very crucial here, as they can interact with the texture.
Third, the sensor has a thermistor. Its electrical resistance is a function of temperature. Just like the human finger can sense heat, the sensor also generates heat, while the thermistor allows it to detect how it exchanges this heat when the finger touches an object.