Sheets of tiny bubbles could bring a sense of touch to virtual reality

Thin, shape-shifting films may one day make for more real-world experiences

silicone sleeves

FEELS REAL  New silicone sleeves studded with inflatable air bubbles could one day make virtual reality gaming a more immersive experience. 


PHOENIX — High-tech attire that would give users the sensation of being pushed, pinched or poked could someday make virtual realities feel as real as they look.

Today’s VR systems rely heavily on goggle-generated visual displays to transport users to simulated worlds. But superthin, shape-shifting sheets worn as sleeves or built into other garments could provide gamers with tactile feedback that makes virtual realities more immersive.

The new device, described April 5 at the Materials Research Society spring meeting, contains a grid of tiny, inflatable bubbles, sandwiched between two soft, stretchy silicone films. When one of these bubble wrap–like sheets is placed against a user’s skin, inflating different air pockets by different amounts at different speeds can make a gamer feel like she’s been grabbed around the wrist or patted on the back.

Some previously developed hand- or finger-worn devices have allowed wearers to feel or manipulate virtual objects. But clothing embedded with smart silicone skins could make VR gaming more of a full-body experience.

Each air pocket on the sheet is coated with a liquid metal sensor that tracks how much that bubble is distended, which helps regulate the device’s shape-shifting. Those sensors also detect indentations in the bubbles, so these sleeves could work as touch pad game controllers, too, says study coauthor Matthew Robertson, a roboticist at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Currently, plastic tubes feed air into the device from an external pump. “Our ultimate goal is to get rid of all the tubes,” Robertson says. He imagines future versions of these VR sleeves fitted with tiny tanks of compressed gas to inflate the air bubbles.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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