Video Shows How Researchers Made a Glove to Let You Feel the Virtual World

To be truly immersive, virtual reality will need to get tactile. 

by James Dennin

Virtual reality has a number of challenges to overcome before we’re truly traipsing through virtual worlds. But we may get there sooner than you think. Researchers recently figured out a way to make confined spaces feel practically limitless in virtual reality by manipulating our eye movements, for example. And now, a new light weight glove developed by researchers in France and Switzerland can help users actually feel virtual objects which aren’t really there.

The new glove is called DextrES, and was presented last month at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) in Berlin. It’s incredibly light weight, less than eight grams per finger, yet relatively strong, capable of generating up to 40 Newtons of holding force, and can be manipulated to make people feel like they’re holding something hard, like a coffee cup, or something as soft as a sponge.

“Gamers are currently the biggest market, but there are many other potential applications - especially in healthcare, such as for training surgeons,” says Herbert Shea, head of EPFL’s Soft Transducers Laboratory, in a statement. “The technology could also be applied in augmented reality.”

The new glove is incredibly lightweight, which lets wearers manipulate virtual objects with a high degree of precision. 

Marc Delachaux / EPFL 2018

To make you feel like you’re holding something, the system uses two metal strips which, when stimulated with an electrical current, clamp together. This allowed researchers to simulate the sensation of a grip when they want to, or allow for completely free movement.

Technically this type of mimicry was already possible, but has traditionally required the use of bulky equipment or expensive exoskeletons. The fact that DextrES is so lightweight, however, is important. After all, the goal is to essentially trick your brain into thinking that you’re holding the virtual objects, as opposed to wearing a pulsing glove that’s pumping haptic feedback into your hand. Researchers tested the device by getting users to whole the virtual objects and manipulate them in precise ways, almost like threading a needle.

“The human sensory system is highly developed and highly complex. We have many different kinds of receptors at a very high density in the joints of our fingers and embedded in the skin,” explains Otmar Hilliges, head of the Advanced Interactive Technologies Lab at ETH Zurich, in a statement. “Rendering realistic feedback when interacting with virtual objects is a very demanding problem and is currently unsolved.”

Heartened by their early results, the researchers say that their plan is to scale the technique up to create full body suits. If their plan shakes out, you’ll soon not only be able to traipse through virtual worlds, but you’ll be able to feel the wind on your face or pick the flowers you see along the way, too.