There are many innovations that arise each day in the area of virtual reality. There are even many ways to apply this technology in everyday situations. For this reason, the University of San Diego engineers are using robotic technology to produce lightweight and flexible gloves that will allow people who love VR technology to feel tactile feedback when interacting with virtual reality environments. These researchers have used the gloves to realistically simulate the tactile feel of playing a virtual piano keyboard.
Researchers recently presented their research at the annual Virtual Reality conference in Burlingame; however according to statements of the developers of this technology, is still in the prototype stage. In addition, many specialists in this area have described this work as something innovative in the world of VR technology.
Currently, VR user interfaces consist of remote-type devices that vibrate when a user touches a virtual surface or object. “They are not realistic,” said Jurgen Schulze, a researcher at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute and one of the top technology authors at the University, who is currently working on the development of this project.
“You can not touch anything, or feel resistance when you press a button. In contrast, we’re trying to make the user feel like they’re in the real world from a tactile point of view,” declares the director of research.
Many other research teams in the industry have worked on gloves like VR interfaces. But it has some features that will not help users feel comfortable; These are large and are made of heavy materials, such as metal. While the glove developed by San Diego University engineers, it has a soft exoskeleton equipped with robotic muscles that make it much lighter and easier to use.
“This is the first prototype, but it’s surprisingly effective,” said Michael Tolley, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego and a researcher and developer.
The system with which the electronic glove is built has three main components: a jumping motion sensor that detects the position and movement of the user’s hands; a personalized fluid control board that controls the movement of gloves; and soft robotic components in the glove that can individually inflate or deflate to mimic the forces with which the user could be in the VR environment. The system was designed to interact with a computer that displays a virtual piano keyboard with a river and trees in the background, according to the developers of this technology.
The developers of that robotic glove have said that a Mckibben muscle, is a key element in the design of the gloves; this synthetic muscle, is a type of soft robotic component built, with latex chambers covered with braided fibers. Muscles can respond as springs to apply force when the user is able to move his or her fingers. The board controls the muscles inflating and deflating.
3D researchers were able to print a mold to make the exoskeleton of robotic gloves. This will allow the devices to be easier to manufacture and suitable for mass production, the developers said. In addition, the silicon rubber afue used to build the exoskeleton, with velcro straps embedded in the joints.
The engineers conducted a pilot study with the participation of 15 users, including two VR interface experts. All participants in the research tested the demo that allowed them to play the piano in VR. Everyone agreed that gloves enhanced the immersion experience. They described it as “fascinating” and “astonishing”.
Currently, engineers are working on developing other technologies to make the glove cheaper, less bulky and more portable for all common users. They would also like to avoid using a Leap Motion device altogether to make the system more compact.
“Our ultimate goal is to create a device that provides a richer VR experience,” Tolley said. “But you could imagine that it is used for surgery and video games, among other applications.”