With every new iteration in virtual reality technology, we are moving towards higher resolution and more immersion. However, unless touch based elements are incorporated virtual reality cannot move beyond visual stimulation. VR headsets, at present, engage your eyes and ears in immersive experiences but what about the rest of your senses?
The next logical step that developers are already working on is how to feel virtual objects in reality. Haptic suits have already made an entrance and allow you to feel virtual objects through haptic feedback. However, it can only do so much. Stanford University’s Shape Lab has started an investigation on finding another way to actually create a dynamic object in 3D that moves with the VR objects in simulations.
Shape-shifting robotics might just be the answer to creating a 3D sensation that will lead to a highly immersive virtual reality experience. What makes this difference from earlier methods is that it is aiming to create an ease of usage. There’s no need to use bulky setups or strap on external gear. All it needs is that user wears a VR headset and rest would be taken care of by shape-shifting robots.
ShapeShift resembles a small desktop PC with rectangular pins forming a dense grid on top. With a flat surface underneath, location of ShapeShift and user’s hands are synched through a tracking marker in virtual reality. These pins retract and extend to mimic the object in real world as users reach out in VR to touch a virtual object, allowing them to feel and touch it in actual reality. ShapeShift can be used easily by mounting it on an omnidirectional robotic platform. Thus, user wouldn’t have to move it around, rather, the box will move on its own leading their hands towards a particular object or experience.
Even at such a small scale, it is a fascinating research as it opens up a world of possibilities. Imagine creating a room built entirely from undulating rods instead of walls and floors. It could perfectly recreate a VR terrain under foot and even allow users to physically experience climbing over objects, debris or hills, creating an even greater immersive experience. Virtual reality technology as of yet hasn’t achieved full dive status but ShapeShift is definitely a step in the right direction.