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Passenger-carrying robot turns VR into an exhilarating ride

A robotic platform that operates using a precision system of cables is the next big thing in motion simulation.

A passenger sits strapped into the chair in the centre of the platform. Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen

A parallel cable robot doesn't sound very exciting, and for the most part, they're not really what springs to mind when people think about robotics. They are robotic systems that consist of a platform operated by a series of actuators that work together in parallel, controlled by a system of cables, and so far their application has mainly been industrial.

A new application developed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing, Engineering and Automation, looks like a metric boatload more entertaining. It's designed to carry a human passenger, simulating motion in VR environments.

The system, which was on display at the Driving Simulation Conference and Exhibition, from September 16-18 in Tübingen, consists of a platform, safely contained in a lightweight carbon fibre roll cage. On the platform, a human passenger can be buckled into a seat, with or without a VR headset.

The cage is then suspended in a space that measures 5 by 5 by 8 metres (16.4 by 16.4 by 26.2 feet) by eight cables, one from each corner of the room.

Each of these eight cables is driven by a powerful motor. In total, these motors have 473 metric horsepower, each unit of which has a vertical lifting power of 75 kilograms per metre per second. This gives them very fine precision control, performing giant, rolling motions that use the entirety of the space, or subtle motions that the passenger may not even notice.

What gives this system an advantage over other motion simulation systems is the cables. These allow the robotic system to be scaled up or down to almost any space size.

The cable robot could, the researchers said, be used for a variety of applications. The platform space is big enough to include cockpit equipment or a projection surface, which means it could be used for flight simulation and training. Likewise, it could be used for driving simulation.

Another potential use is neurological research. "This simulator offers us entirely new possibilities for studying motion perception with possible applications in neurological research into balance disorders," said Heinrich Bülthoff, lead researcher, professor and director with the Max Planck Institute's department of human perception, in a statement.

Visiting your neurologist will never have been so much fun.