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.