Wild VR gadget makes virtual objects feel solid at the touch of your hand

Wireality makes virtual reality a lot more physical. Can we build a Star Trek holodeck now, please?

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

This image shows how Wireality works.

Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University want to make virtual reality a little less virtual and a lot more physical with a device that puts the feel of solid objects at your fingertips.

Wireality is a shoulder-mounted haptic system that uses retractable wires attached to your hand to provide feedback during a VR experience. It works by stopping the motion of your hand to match the geometry of the virtual object you are "touching." A video shows the device in action.

"Our system enables tangible interactions with complex geometries, such as touching non-perpendicular, flat, and curved surfaces, wrapping fingers around railings and poles, and touching irregular objects," wrote lead engineer Cathy Fang on the project website.

Wireality builds on a concept that has already been explored—the use of strings to create haptic feedback. Previous takes on this idea used motors to control the strings. "The downside to motors is they consume a lot of power. They also are heavy," said Fang in a release on Tuesday.

Fang's version of the string-machine uses spring-loaded retractors—like the kind that keep ID badges attached to their owners—combined with a ratchet mechanism. "Only a small amount of electrical power is needed to engage the latch, so the system is energy efficient and can be operated on battery power," said Carnegie Mellon.  

Wireality is lightweight and would be relatively inexpensive to produce. The research team estimates it could be built at scale for less than $50 (£40, AU$75). Fang sees a variety of potential uses for the system in gaming, visiting virtual museums or checking out retail goods.

The researchers published their work this month in the Association for Computing Machinery's Digital Library.

Virtual-reality equipment has been heading in the direction of providing more immersive physical feedback to users. We've seen haptic vests, tactile gloves and a full-body suit in recent years. 

Engineers are still far from creating a full-on Star Trek holodeck experience where the virtual feels entirely real, but at least we're heading in that dreamy sci-fi direction.

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