New virtual reality interface enables “touch” across long distances

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Lightweight, flexible patch conveys a tactile sensation directly to the skin

Adding a sense of touch can make virtual reality experiences feel more real.

A woman sits at a computer, video chatting with her young son while she gently pats an interface on a separate screen. In response, a wireless patch on the child’s back vibrates in a pattern that matches his mother’s fingers, allowing him to “feel” her physical touch.

The new patch is a type of haptic device, a technology that remotely conveys tactile signals. A common example is video game controllers that vibrate when the player’s avatar takes a hit. Some researchers think more advanced, wearable versions of such interfaces will become a vital part of making virtual and augmented reality experiences feel like they are actually happening. “If you take a look at what exists today in VR and AR, it consists primarily of auditory and visual channels as the main basis for the sensory experience,” says John A. Rogers, a physical chemist and material scientist at Northwestern University, whose team helped develop the new haptic patch. “But we think that the skin itself—the sense of touch—could qualitatively add to your experience that you could achieve with VR, beyond anything that’s possible with audio and video.”

Scientists, technology companies and do-it-yourself-ers have experimented with wearable haptic devices, often vests or gloves equipped with vibrating motors. But many of these require heavy battery packs connected by a mess of wires. Because of their weight, most have to be attached loosely to the body instead of adhering securely to the skin. So, Rogers and his colleagues developed a vibrating disk, only a couple millimeters thick, that can run with very little energy. These actuators (a term for devices that give a system physical motion) need so little energy that they can be powered by near-field communication—a wireless method of transferring small amounts of power, typically used for applications like unlocking a door with an ID card.

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The future of brain-computer interfaces and the human machine

 

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The melding of humanity with the technology we have created has begun…

We are well on our way as Homo sapiens to becoming a species that fully merges technology with our organic bodies. In some ways, we’ve been getting at this for centuries already, beginning with the first use of eyeglasses, at the end of the thirteenth century in Italy, to improve vision by making it easy for someone to wear two magnifying lenses on the bridge of their nose.

But ever since the invention of the computer and the first human-machine interfaces were born (HMIs), a dream of many technologists has been to create direct connections between computers and the human brain. These brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) — also known as Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs) — would eliminate the lag inherent in the translation between thought → physical action → computer response. BCIs also allow people who cannot perform physical actions required for HMIs to bypass that real-world step and directly control powerful computer tools with the electrical impulses in their brains.

One of the dreams is that BCIs will eventually place the entire canon of human knowledge within the realm of immediate recall: No more searching the internet via typing or voice commands needed. In a near future, we will be able to think about what we need and pull whatever relevant information is available directly from a cloud and into the forefront of our minds.

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