To review the concept of extended reality- let’s return back to the definition of reality itself. It is an accumulation of experiences, gathered physically and mentally over time. This means that extending reality is effectively altering or augmenting these experiences as they enter your consciousness, which is done by engaging with your senses. Most prominently in AR and VR, the technology is engaging with our sense of sight. Second most engaged is our auditory sense. Taste and smell have yet to be fully tapped into in the immersive space. However, finding ways to augment or alter our sense of touch through extending reality is an up and coming field. This is called Haptic Feedback Technology, more commonly referred to as Haptics.
XR Today states that Haptics serves to “… bridge the gap between human and digital interactions by recreating the feeling of vibrations, touch, and pressure”. This is something we experience even outside of XR, in products we use all the time. For example, when we choose an option on an app in our phone, it may vibrate in response, verifying that the decision has gone through. This is haptic feedback!
In VR experiences, however, it’s a lot more complex- in some cases, VR creators are completely recreating a tactile experience artificially. This is done in two ways, through recreating active touch and passive touch. Passive touch refers to when we are not cognisant of what we are touching: for example, when we turn the pages of a book. Active touch is when a unique piece of sensory information is sent to our brain which in turn converts to a feedback signal (XR Today). This is the type of sensation that algorithms used in XR apps have to replicate, usually through gloves that the user wears on their hands as they navigate an XR experience.
Meta is working on a haptics project called ReSkin, a pair of gloves that replicates touch through the use of air pressure. When a user touches something in the virtual world, a signal is sent to the gloves and tells them how much air pressure to put out onto the user’s fingers. This, in turn, makes it feel like the object in VR is actually pushing against the user’s hand. Another product in development is bHaptic’s Tactsuit, which features 40 vibro-tactile motors that provide tactile feedback as they navigate through the world in their VR headsets.
The advantages of haptic technology goes beyond gaming and entertainment; it could be very useful in physical therapy as well as training for extreme circumstances. For example, people who are training to become police officers or firefighters. Our sense of touch is very important; we use it constantly to understand the world around us. It is still an emerging field for this very reason; there are so many nuances to touch that are hard to replicate with only vibrations and changes in air pressure. However, it’s on its way.