Earlier this month, researchers at the University of California San Diego presented its soft robot, capable of walking over rough terrain with four 3D printed legs. Now, a different team with UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering is working on another soft robotics project, coupled with virtual reality, that might just be music to your ears. Typically in VR environments, while users are able to interact with things on the screen, drawing and moving and modeling various objects, the sense of touch is missing from the experience. Using soft robotics technology, the UC San Diego engineers are making flexible, lightweight gloves that change the whole experience of VR, and allow users to actually experience tactile feedback when they interact with the VR environment.

To test the innovative pair of gloves, the researchers used them to simulate the realistic, tactile feeling of playing a piano keyboard in a VR environment. If this is where music is heading, I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who would ever again cry to their parents, “But I don’t WANNA go to piano lessons!”

At the moment, VR user interfaces are made of devices that are more like remotes. These devices will vibrate when the user touches a surface or object in the VR environment, but that’s not really the same as actually feeling the object.

Jurgen Schulze, a senior author on the team’s research paper and a research scientist at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego said, “They’re not realistic. You can’t touch anything, or feel resistance when you’re pushing a button. By contrast, we are trying to make the user feel like they’re in the actual environment from a tactile point of view.”

This isn’t the first time gloves have been used as VR interfaces, but the examples from other industry and research teams are heavy and bulky. UC San Diego’s gloves are lightweight and easy to use, thanks to a soft exoskeleton that features soft robotic muscles. To make the gloves more suited for future mass production, and easier to make, the researchers used a 3D printed mold to make the soft exoskeleton. It’s made of silicone rubber, with embedded Velcro straps at the joints.

An important part of the glove design is something called a McKibben muscle. This soft robotic component is made up of latex chambers that are covered with braided fibers; when the user wearing the gloves moves their fingers, the McKibben muscles act like springs to apply force.

Three main components make up the system, which interacts directly with a computer that displays a virtual keyboard, along with a background of trees and a river:

  • A custom fluidic control board
  • Soft robotic components in the gloves
  • A Leap Motion sensor

The board controls the glove components and muscles, which mimic forces encountered in the VR environment by individually inflating and deflating. The sensor detects both the position and movement of the user’s hands while their fingers are moving to “play” the keyboard.

An informal pilot study was conducted of the system, coupled with an Oculus headset, and 15 users, including two VR interface experts, tried out the demo product and played the virtual piano keyboard. All of the users agreed that the gloves and the system, which were described as “amazing” and “mesmerizing,” definitely increased the immersive experience of the VR environment.

The team is already working on ideas to enhance the gloves by making them more affordable and portable and less bulky; one idea they had to make the system more compact is by entirely bypassing the Leap Motion device. They recently presented the research on their prototype at the Electronic Imaging, Engineering Reality for Virtual Reality conference, held in Burlingame, California.

“This is a first prototype but it is surprisingly effective,” said Michael Tolley, also a senior author on the research paper and a mechanical engineering professor at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

“Our final goal is to create a device that provides a richer experience in VR. But you could imagine it being used for surgery and video games, among other applications.”

We’ve seen soft robotics and 3D printing combined before, making inexpensive prosthetic hands and a jamming-based gripper; scientists even used a 3D printed cat tongue to further studies in soft robotics. But this is the first time I’ve seen it used to add the sense of touch to a VR environment. Discuss in the Soft Robotics forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering]

 

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