Wearable skin could make virtual reality games unbelievably immersive

Video games could offer new levels of immersion in unexpected ways.

Virtual reality feeling

Ready to put skin in the game? A touch-sensitive virtual reality “skin” could add a new level of immersion that makes users feel even more like they’re inhabiting a virtual world.

Researchers at Northwestern University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University have devised a new apparatus that can make a user feel like they’re really part of an immersive experience. The research was published Wednesday in the publication Nature.

Virtual reality already brings immersion to new levels by matching a user’s head movements with their vision. Video game companies have expanded on this with stick-shaped handheld controllers like the PlayStation Move, making players feel like they can reach out and touch objects. Mark Zuckerberg shared a video in September 2019 of a potential hand tracking system that ditches the controller entirely.

With this new immersive skin, developers could take another step toward mimicking expected inputs for a user’s senses and simulating imagined worlds.

A breakdown of the virtual skin.
A breakdown of the virtual skin.

Virtual reality skin: how it would work

The system involves a thin, elastomeric layer that sits on the skin. That layer is paired with another silicon-enclosed layer that houses the electronics, plus a breathable fabric layer that protects the electronics.

The functional layer contains copper traces in polyimide, a common polymer. They connect radio frequency loop antennas, or RF, to a series of other components. A number of actuators await commands and react at a moment’s notice.

The skin uses near-field communication, or NFC, to receive commands from the virtual world. This is the same technology used in contactless credit cards. It enables battery-free operation. The system design may vary, but the team envision a transmitter placed tens of centimeters away, under a bed for example, providing around 12 watts of power wirelessly to the antenna.

The team outlines a number of exciting use cases for the virtual system:

  • A child touches the screen with a video call feed of a grandparent, and the grandparent feels the touch on the arm.
  • A man with a prosthetic arm and skin attached to the bicep holds a coffee cup. He can feel the pattern of sensations on his arm that correspond with the feeling of holding an object.
  • A man playing a video game with pads attached around his body can feel the strikes at the relevant pressure points.
Exploring alternate realities
The fully-immersive PSVR.

Virtual reality skin: breaking new barriers

The skin has the potential to make communication feel closer, games more immersive, and even help patients recover.

The team is not the first to experiment in this area. A team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne described a skin in the journal Soft Robotics in September 2019 that reacts to input from sensors. The team claimed that the skin, less than 500 nanometers thick, could respond to forces at a rate of 100 Hertz and at a force of one Newton.

Whether higher immersion will help virtual reality reach the mainstream remains to be seen. But with Apple reportedly planning its big jump into the space, and Valve expected to announce a major Half-Life title for headsets on Thursday, it seems interest is increasing in this previously-niche space.

>Abstract:

Traditional technologies for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) create human experiences through visual and auditory stimuli that replicate sensations associated with the physical world. The most widespread VR and AR systems use head-mounted displays, accelerometers and loudspeakers as the basis for three-dimensional, computer-generated environments that can exist in isolation or as overlays on actual scenery. In comparison to the eyes and the ears, the skin is a relatively underexplored sensory interface for VR and AR technology that could, nevertheless, greatly enhance experiences at a qualitative level, with direct relevance in areas such as communications, entertainment and medicine. Here we present a wireless, battery-free platform of electronic systems and haptic (that is, touch-based) interfaces capable of softly laminating onto the curved surfaces of the skin to communicate information via spatiotemporally programmable patterns of localized mechanical vibrations. We describe the materials, device structures, power delivery strategies and communication schemes that serve as the foundations for such platforms. The resulting technology creates many opportunities for use where the skin provides an electronically programmable communication and sensory input channel to the body, as demonstrated through applications in social media and personal engagement, prosthetic control and feedback, and gaming and entertainment.