May 31, 2017 | By Tess

A team of researchers from the University of California San Diego is using 3D printing and soft robotics to develop smart gloves that give tactile feedback to users from virtual reality environments. Still in their prototyping stage, the innovative robotic gloves have been successfully used to simulate the feeling of playing a virtual piano.

As virtual reality games and environments are becoming increasingly realistic (or fantastic!), one area that has been lagging a bit behind is tactile response. Currently, most tactile feedback comes in the form of a vibrating remote, which buzzes when users encounter something in their VR world.

Obviously, this kind of simple feedback isn’t as nuanced as the visual aspects of VR, and can draw away from the experience’s quality of immersion. As UC San Diego researcher Jurgen Schulze noted, “They're not realistic. You can't touch anything, or feel resistance when you're pushing a button.”

Fortunately, Schulze and a group of dedicated researchers are hoping to bring the sense of touch into virtual reality in a significant way. “We are trying to make the user feel like they're in the actual environment from a tactile point of view,” he added.

The UC San Diego team recently presented its work at the Electronic Imaging, Engineering Reality for Virtual Reality conference in Burlingame, California, where attendees were undoubtedly impressed by the robotic hand accessory before them.

Unlike other existing efforts to bring tactility into VR, which have often relied upon bulky and heavy materials like metal, UC San Diego’s project has used much lighter and more flexible soft robotics to make its VR gloves.

The robotic glove is made up of three main parts: a Leap Motion sensor that is capable of detecting the position of the user’s hands; a fluidic control board that is customized to control the glove’s movements; and soft robotic parts that are designed to inflate or deflate depending on how the user moves his or her hand in the VR world. It is the deflation or inflation that effectively mimics the tactile force of touching something in real life.

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

The soft robotic components themselves fall into the category of a “Mckibben muscle,” which is described as “latex chambers covered with braided fibers.” With all three glove components working together, the robotic muscles are made to respond whenever the users moves their fingers.

For the VR glove’s exoskeleton, the researchers 3D printed a mold of the glove. By using 3D printing for the mold, the team says it will be easier to manufacture and mass produce the devices. For the prototype glove, a silicon rubber fitted with velcro straps was used for the exoskeleton.

To test the VR glove, the UC San Diego team invited fifteen users (two of which were VR experts) to try playing a virtual piano. As we can see in the demo video, the gloves were linked to a computer display that showed the virtual hand interacting with the keyboard in real time. In the end, the test users were amazed with the quality of feedback, noting how responsive the glove was.

Currently, the team of engineers are working on improving their VR glove design and are hoping to make it lighter, less bulky, and, of course, cheaper. "Our final goal is to create a device that provides a richer experience in VR," concluded Tolley. "But you could imagine it being used for surgery and video games, among other applications."



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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