In the future, pulling a lever in Vacation Simulator may feel a little more like touching one in real life: Researchers at Meta's Reality Labs have been working on a haptic glove that would add the sensation of touch to augmented and virtual reality experiences, and ultimately make the metaverse more immersive.
Meta has given us some sneak peeks at the gloves in the past, including in patent filings and brief video appearances, but this is the first time the company is sharing more details on the project.
- Reality Labs researchers have been working on haptic gloves for seven years, and they're not done by a long shot: A blog post published Tuesday outlines that the gloves are part of efforts to build technology "for what our digital worlds will look like in 10 to 15 years."
- The ultimate goal is to build soft and lightweight gloves that can be used to both track hand movements and provide tactile feedback. "The value of hands to solving the interaction problem in AR and VR is immense," said Reality Labs Research Director Sean Keller. "People could touch, feel and manipulate virtual objects just like real objects — all without having to learn a new way of interacting with the world."
- Current prototypes use pneumatic actuators — small motors that use air pressure to provide tactile feedback — in combination with a microfluidic processor, which is a chip that's directly situated on the glove to control the air pressure valves.
- Reality Labs researchers have also been developing new polymer materials for the glove itself in order to eventually manufacture it at scale.
Meta is not the only company working on this type of haptic glove for VR applications. Notably, HaptX has also been working on a glove that is driven by pneumatics, and is making its devices available to developers for VR and industrial robotics applications.
- HaptX's glove does show some of the potential of this technology: When I tested an early prototype four years ago, I was able to touch individual flowers in a VR experience, and "feel" objects sliding over my open palm.
- HaptX's device also shows the current limits of this technology: The startup's glove is fairly rigid and uses a kind of external brace, and needs to be connected to a sizable control box to drive the pneumatics.
- Much of this could be miniaturized over time, but Meta's researchers acknowledged that VR worlds may never feel 100% real. For instance, a glove may be able to simulate the sensation of touching the top of a virtual table, but it won't prevent hands from passing through the table's surface.
Still, the technology developed for these gloves may have repercussions beyond AR and VR. "While we're focused on building a haptic glove, the breakthroughs we're making in fluidic switching and control — not to mention soft robotics — could lead to radical advances for the medical industry in lab-on-chip diagnostics, microfluidic biochemistry and even wearable and assistive devices," said Reality Labs Research Hardware Engineering Director Tristan Trutna.