The Anatomy of VR
Virtual reality will not only be a vision-based medium, but one that will immerse our other senses in equal measure. Since normally sighted humans primarily use visual stimuli to represent the world, people apply the same visual bias to the development and description of VR, but what began as handheld controller with haptic feedback will soon enclothe the user as completely as a scuba diver is enclothed by their suit. This could take the form described in multiple works of sci-fi, such as Ready Player One or The Lawnmower Man where the room adjusts to the user while feedback gadgets encompass their head, limbs, digits and trunk. An alternative (and ultimately, the most likely) may be trans-cranial headsets, in which brain regions are stimulated to create the sensation of movement and selective pressure. Though non-invasive means may be preferred, there is the option of internal mechanization, also known as the Tetsuo method, but that veers heavily towards the nightmarish — forget I mentioned that one.
A cortical homunculus is a representation of the human body that is proportioned according to how much of the brain is devoted to their operation. You’ll notice that the mouth takes up a great deal of space, which also makes sense intuitively since it’s the region that carries out exceedingly complex speech actions. Likewise, the hands are grossly over-sized since they are highly sensitive, are used to carry out fine motor tasks, and they are even used in communication for non-hearing persons. So, beyond the fact that they are needed to carry out manual tasks in VR, they’re the prime (and typically only) locale for tactile stimulation used to reinforce the environment portrayed in a VR headset.
The haptic devices in hand at the moment include stick controllers and gloves. Sometimes using a stick controller, such as Vive’s, sufficiently adds realism to an experience. For example, I recently tried Minigolf VR, a game in which the stick controller shook convincingly when your putter came into contact with the golf ball. Though technically very basic, it was certainly the stimulation appropriate to the experience. One of the more presence-affirming applications of this vibratory feedback I’ve experienced in VR was in The Shoebox Diorama, which had me brush aside a curtain to look out the window. The pulsing of the stick controller mirrored the stimulation of really pushing aside the fabric. The effect was subtle, but impressions of reality are built on such subtleties.
There are, however, VR experiences like The Climb, a rock climbing simulator, that benefit greatly by fitting the user with a glove. Having experienced The Climb with both a regular handheld controller and an Oculus Touch, I can confirm that there’s no comparison; the audio and visual are a window to the experience, but the haptic gloves make the experience.
A less obvious choice for a VR accessory is the foot, but it is coming all the same. Japanese firm Cerevo is working to bring us Taclim footwear that will help us more literally step into a virtual environment and it should arrive in the latter half of this year. At their CES 2017 presentation, they mentioned recreating the sensation of walking on the moon or stomping through puddles. My own ideas include feeling bone shatter as you crush an enemy skull beneath your feet, a carpentry simulator in which you step on a nail, or a tickle simulator. And to speak frankly, as adults, some people are really into foot stuff, so this could be a device for them.
Haptic accessories for the body’s core are also being released but, unlike hardware for physical extremities, vests and suits have applications beyond that of just VR. While it might be satisfying to have a dinosaur lick your chest or feel yourself being shot in the abdomen, these body haptics can be used in conjunction with everyday, mundane entertainment mediums like films and music. With such a device, users can feel the approaching foot stomps of a Godzilla course through their bones, muscle, and veins. Or feel their favorite EDM track shake their physical core at 200 BPM. One such device was the Woojer Vest, which gave developers access to a multitude of sounds with which to enhance their respective experiences.
While the focus of this article has been haptic technologies, it’d be unfair of me not to mention the development teams working on taste in VR. The Food Simulator is coming out of the University of Tsukuba in Japan and it’s working to recreate the eating experience not just through reproducing a taste, but also simulating the force necessary to chew the food. Meaning, the amount of pressure needed to munch through a tender peach will be much less than what’s needed for an overcooked Christmas turkey. Since sticking VR accessories in your mouth is somewhat invasive, the commercial application would likely be for food-based games, perhaps ones where the player is the chef of a virtual kitchen. That said, what VR experiences have you had but most want to taste so far? For me, I want to taste the Job Simulator burrito that gets you to the main menu.
This is the total package; and no, it’s not a repeat reference to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It is instead about the HaptX Skeleton developed by AxonVR and it can more specifically be described as an exoskeleton. Throughout one’s whole body, the device promises to provide intricate tactile information, give force feedback (meaning users feel the impact when they strike something or something strikes against them), and allow the user to seamlessly walk through the terrain without violating the borders of their room-scale setup. And this is where the earlier examples from fiction (see The Lawnmower Man and Ready Player One) bear a strong resemblance to reality.