(Photo: Future Interfaces Group/Carnegie Mellon)An enterprising group of engineers from Carnegie Mellon has released the results of a unique experiment. The team has been working on improving Virtual Reality (VR) by adding more sensations for the user to feel. Unlike existing kits which produce vibrations with handheld controllers, this team added puffs of air aimed directly at the mouth. The logic behind the decision is sound: the mouth has the second-highest number of mechanoreceptors in the entire body. The only area of the body that’s more sensitive is a person’s fingertips.
The group is part of the university’s Future Interfaces Group, and its goal was to deliver “rich, tactile sensations” in VR. The team noted that current solutions only deliver feedback in a player’s hands, but more was needed. Currently, alternative solutions do exist like haptic vests and exoskeletons, but those haven’t achieved widespread adoption. An additional challenge is people don’t want to be tethered, encumbered, or have their entire face covered. This lead to the idea for a compact, beamforming array of ultrasonic transducers. They are mounted on the bottom of the headset, and aimed directly at the operator’s mouth.
The result is a fairly inconspicuous array of transducers that “focus air-borne acoustic energy onto the lips and into the mouth.” Yes, they designed it to produce sensations “into the mouth.” This allows you to feel pulses on your teeth and tongue in addition to the outside of your lips. The effects you can feel range from subtle taps to continuous vibrations. The team notes they can animate these effects along arbitrary 3D paths, creating effects that feel realistic.
So, what kind of effects are we talking about here? If you’re the squeamish type, stop reading now. In the video above it shows the player walking through cobwebs that get stuck to her face. A “wipe” animation is activated to simulate the spiderweb sliding off her face. That’s not too bad, but it gets even ickier. In the next example, a spider jumps onto her mouth, and proceeds to “scurry” all over her face. If you haven’t ripped the headset off by now, you’re a brave gamer. Moving on, next she has to shoot a spider with a flare gun. This causes the spider’s guts to splatter across her mouth, which is painful just to type. Finally, she has to walk under a shower of venom dripping down from a spider, which she can feel wash across her face. Gee, where can we sign up for this?!
As far as real world simulations that don’t involve spiders go, the team also created a school simulation, including taking a drink at a water fountain, where the user feels water splashing on their lips. Next, they take a swig of coffee that produces “z swipes” to simulate liquid entering their mouth. Finally, they can take a drag on a cigarette, and even brush their teeth. The latter producing pulses of sound on their teeth to enhance the experience. The team also made a motorcycle simulation where the rider can feel the wind on their face. They can also feel puddles splashing them, and similar sensations related to forward movement. We’d definitely like to try the motorcycle experience, as that sounds like a very immersive use for this technology. (Perhaps it could include the sensation of occasionally eating a bug? – Ed)
Whether this will ever make it out of the lab and into a consumer headset remains to be seen. However, Meta, Apple, and Sony might take a close look at it. Sony has already announced its upcoming PSVR2 headset will include haptic feedback in the headset, which is a first. Clearly companies are examining ways to provide additional levels of immersive feedback. Meta is also hard at work on a haptic glove, as we reported previously. Gizmodo snarkily concluded the real goal of this project was to simulate the feel of kissing someone. Which just raises an even more unsettling question; will there be a Tinder in the metaverse?