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Why touch can be such a creepy sensation in VR

Pairing tactile feedback with visual cues can keep the experience immersive, not jarring

2:00pm, April 18, 2018
person experiencing VR

EERIE FEELING  Making tactile sensations more realistic doesn’t necessarily improve users’ virtual reality experience.

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There’s a fine line between immersive and unnerving when it comes to touch sensation in virtual reality.

More realistic tactile feedback in VR can ruin a user’s feeling of immersion, researchers report online April 18 in Science Robotics. The finding suggests that the “uncanny valley” — a term that describes how humanoid robots that look almost but not quite human are creepier than their more cartoonish counterparts — also applies to virtual touch (SN Online: 11/22/13).

Experiment participants wearing VR headsets and gripping a controller in each hand embodied a virtual avatar holding the two ends of a stick. At first, users felt no touch sensation. Then, the hand controllers gave equally strong vibrations every half-second. Finally, the vibrations were finely tuned to create the illusion that the virtual stick was being touched in different spots. For instance, stronger vibrations in the right controller gave the impression that the stick was nudged on that side.

Compared with scenarios in which users received either no touch or even buzzing sensations, participants reported feeling far less immersed in the virtual environment when they received the realistic, localized touch. This result demonstrates the existence of a tactile uncanny valley, says study coauthor Mar Gonzalez-Franco, a human-computer interaction researcher at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington.

But when users were shown a marble touching the virtual stick wherever they felt the localized touch, the participants found this realistic tactile feedback highly immersive rather than bothersome. The finding indicates that rich tactile feedback in VR may need to be paired with other sensory cues that explain the source of the sensation to avoid spooking users, Gonzalez-Franco says.

Better understanding how realistic touch sensations can break the VR illusion may help developers create more engaging virtual environments for games and virtual reality therapy, says Sean Follmer, a human-computer interaction researcher at Stanford University not involved in the study.

Uncanny valley

People feel moderately immersed in a virtual reality experience when their handheld controllers provide no touch sensation or an even buzzing. When the controllers’ vibration gives the illusion of realistic, localized touch, users are unsettled and become less immersed — unless they can see what’s causing that feeling, such as a virtual marble bumping into a virtual stick. Then participants feel highly immersed.

graph of touch sensation versus level of user immersion

C.C. Berger et al. The uncanny valley of haptics. Science Robotics. Published online April 18, 2018. doi: 10.1126/scirobotics.aar7010.

Further Reading

M. Temming. Sheets of tiny bubbles could bring a sense of touch to virtual reality. Science News Online, April 6, 2018.

M. Temming. Robotic docs can boost surgery time and cost. Science News Online, October 24, 2017.

B. Mason. Virtual reality has a motion sickness problemScience News. Vol. 191, March 18, 2017, p. 24.

E. Engelhaupt. Almost-lifelike hands perceived as creepy. Science News Online, November 22, 2013.

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