Japanese haptics research getting closer to making the virtual physical

Share on FacebookShare on LinkedInTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Print this pageEmail this to someone

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation that gives human beings the ability to experience infinite virtual worlds. But while it’s one thing to be in a virtual world, it’s quite another thing to feel that you are actually there. Tactile feedback is the crucial element that lets us experience the digital and virtual as physical and tangible. Tactile feedback from a virtual world is made possible through haptic technology. Haptic technology or “haptics” simulates the sense of touch by applying vibrations, forces, or motions to the user through electric actuators, pneumatics and hydraulics.

Haptic systems can be wearable exoskeletons like gloves that apply resistance to each finger and others are pneumatic suits that cover the entire body to simulate impact to the whole body, for instance the force of being hit by an opponent in a virtual reality game.

Japan is home to a number of VR companies and academics at leading universities who are working on refining haptic technology. The country is also host to a major conference focused on haptic technology. At the end of this year, companies, startups and researchers will have the opportunity to demonstrate their progress in this field to audiences at the second AsiaHaptics International Conference in Japan.

H2L Tokyo-based H2L is the manufacturer of UnlimitedHand, a haptic armband that allows a wearer to intuitively control and feel haptic feedback within virtual reality. Last year H2L reached its Kickstarter goal in just under 22 hours. The armband houses a haptic sensor and a number of multi-channel electronic muscle stimulators (EMS). UnlimitedHand links movements of a user’s hand with its virtual counterpart while returning haptic feedback. VR enthusiasts can buy UnlimitedHand on Amazon, on UnlimitedHand’s official web store, and at retail stores in Japan.

Miraisens Japanese high-tech firm, Miraisens, has developed haptic technology that tricks you into believing that you are touching objects in virtual reality.

It works by fooling the brain, blending the images the eye is seeing with different patterns of vibration created by a small device on the fingertip, said Norio Nakamura, the inventor of "3D-Haptics Technology" and chief technical officer at the firm.

The company foresees that the haptics system could be incorporated into devices in the shape of pens, sticks, or coins and even in the form of a cane for visually impaired people. Miraisens is a spin-off of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology based in the city of Tsukuba east of Tokyo.

HIRO III Researchers at Japan's Gifu University have developed a five-fingered haptic interface robot: HIRO III that lets users experience 3-D renderings of objects on their computer screen. Driven by 15 independent motors, the robot’s ‘fingers’ provide real-time force feedback to the human hand, while simulating the weight and contour of virtual 3-D objects.

IrukaTact IrukaTact is a haptic sonar glove developed at the Tsukuba University in Japan. Still in the development phase, the glove is worn underwater to “feel” for objects that can’t be seen. The glove could potentially be used to search for victims of drownings or sunken objects in murky waters. Inspired by the dolphin, IrukaTact (iruka means ‘dolphin’ in Japanese) uses echo-location to detect objects below the water. As the wearer’s hand approaches a sunken object, haptic feedback via water jets become stronger on the wearer’s fingertips. The glove could potentially also be used with a VR headset and outfitted with gyroscopes and accelerometers to provide haptic feedback in virtual reality.

The Haptoclone The Haptoclone is a different take on touching things in virtual reality. Created by scientists at Tokyo's Department of Complexity Science and Engineering, the Haptoclone consists of two boxes, one containing an object and the other displaying a hologram of it. When you “touch” the hologram, it emits ultrasonic radiation pressure, creating the sensation of touching the object. At the same time, a hologram of the human hand appears visually in the other box with the real object. The scientists are working on keeping within safe levels of ultrasound which at this point limits the depth of feeling. Ultrasound can be harmful to the body.

The eventual outcome of their research will be our ability to give each other a ‘real’ hug in virtual reality and the AsiaHaptics conference at the end of the year in Kashiwanoha, Japan might be the place where we would be able to experience this magic of modern technology for the first time.