Innovation in virtual reality (VR) technology may soon enable home users to feel the objects they touch in the virtual environment.

Putting on a VR headset takes you into a new three-dimensional environment where you can see, hear, and interact with the objects around you by using hand-held controllers. As you lean to one side, the headset reacts to your motion and allows you to peek around a corner. As you reach down to the floor, buttons and triggers on the controllers allow you to pick up a ball rolling past on the ground.

Current controllers are usable in much the same way as one another, with buttons or touchpads in reach of your thumbs, and triggers for your index and middle fingers. The controls allow for different types of interaction with the virtual environment, such as pushing a button or pulling open a door.

However, the immersion in the virtual environment stops there - you cannot feel the button or the ball as you touch them. The development challenges include figuring out how to provide a resisting force to a user’s fingers as the fingers meet the surface of an object in VR. The fingers must be tracked accurately so that there is correspondence between where the fingers are in the physical and virtual space, determining the magnitude and direction of the resistive force to apply, and then applying the force to the appropriate fingers.

Several companies are already overcoming the problem of how to feel objects in VR.

HaptX gloves include shell-like fingertip coverings connected to an exoskeletal frame, fitted over the user’s hand. The frame allows application of forces to the fingertips via fingertip coverings to simulate physical objects being held between the fingers. HaptX gloves also include arrays of small pneumatic actuators on skin-like coverings, which provide more granular resolution to force-feedback beyond the gross forces applied to the fingers, thereby enabling a user to feel shape and texture. You may even be able to tell that the ball you picked up is a golf ball.

Manus VR gloves include resonant linear actuators arranged over the last third of the wearer’s fingers. The strength of the vibrations generated by the actuators is tailorable and changes depending on the material characteristics of the object being grasped.

VRgluv gloves look like articulated gauntlets, where the gauntlets include mechanical connectors. The tensile connectors cause the gloves to resist the motion of the wearer’s fingers when the fingers are determined to meet the surface of an object. A controller includes force profiles which enable the wearer to vary their grip strength depending on the object they are interacting with – a heavier object may require a stronger grip to pick up.

This is a brief summary of just three of the many groups innovating in the VR haptics arena. As the share of computer gamers using VR increases* and more training applications are developed, innovation in this area can only accelerate. I for one cannot wait to see what I might be able to add to my VR setup by Christmas.

* The April 2020 Steam Hardware Survey demonstrated that users of VR headsets have increased from 0.62% to 1.91%.