This haptic skin prototype could make VR experiences more realistic

That doesn’t mean it isn’t creepy

Cornell University’s Organic Robotics Lab has revealed a prototype of a new technology it’s calling Omnipulse, which combines soft rubber material with pneumatic air pockets to create haptic feedback that feels more realistic than other haptic devices currently available.

Virtual reality has gotten pretty good at fooling our eyes into thinking an object is right in front of us, but it’s the use of haptic technology that takes the illusion even further by engaging our sense of touch. 

Haptics is the technology that can make virtual objects feel like they exist in the real world by adding movement, texture, and real-time feedback and it’s been used in gamepads for a long time to create a sense of environment.

Totally tactile

The main problem facing haptic technology in its current state is that it can feel rather mechanical and doesn’t fully relay a sense of texture or changing geometry because it mostly relies on vibrations. This is a problem that Cornell’s Omnipulse, created in collaboration with Nvidia, could solve.

The Omnipulse is essentially a flexible and thin sheet of rubber which uses pneumatics to provide feedback. Because it’s made from a flexible rubber, the Omnipulse can be easily integrated into the many VR controllers and gloves that already exist, and could perhaps even be integrated into a haptic suit. 

Road to VR, who got hands on with the technology recently at  GTC 2017, reported that the skin was able to wrap around and conform to the shape of an HTC Vive controller and was able to replicate sensations such as gun recoil, hitting a hammer against objects, punching objects, and shooting a squirt gun.

It’s the use of air pockets that makes Omnipulse so good for replicating different textures; depending on the amount of air that’s used the controller could convey something very soft and squishy or something much more solid.

At the moment Omnipulse is still in the early prototype stages and it’s not clear when or if it will be integrated into VR controllers or whether its creators will use it as the basis to create their own Omnipulse-fitted peripherals. 

Advancing haptic technology will be key to creating truly immersive virtual reality experiences, though we’re not entirely sure we’d feel comfortable wearing an entire second skin that appears to have a mind of its own.