New VR gloves designed by engineers at UC San Diego employ soft robotics to deliver tactile feedback to the wearer as they touch and interact with virtual objects. The system is designed to mimic the movement and sensation of muscle with a component called a McKibben Muscle. The glove is structured in a layer of latex chambers, surrounded on the surface by braided muscles. The entire glove (including the muscles) is connected to a circuit board, and as you interact with virtual objects, the gloves inflate and deflate to replicate pressure. It’s a finely tuned process designed to give you the sensation you’re actually lifting and touching objects, just like you would in the real world. In theory, the gloves could paired with other technologies like a Leap Motion sensor to simulate a wide range of activities. This type of technology has been used in similar ways before — though not exactly in the muscle structure described above. The Kor-FX and Hardlight Suit, for example, are VR-ready vests that allow you to feel impacts and pressure on your chest through haptic feedback.
Jointly, these technologies may someday be used to immerse you entirely in a virtual world, whether for entertainment, gaming or more practical purposes like situational training. Of course, they will remain separate pieces of gear for now, at least until engineers or developers figure out a way to create one, seamless outfit or suit. That would require overcoming obstacles like interconnectivity problems that occur with other kinds of electronics. A full-body suit would need to be able to differentiate between pressure, impact, or muscle simulations on different areas of your body, which would also need to be fine-tuned from a software perspective. Video games, for instance, would have to include information such as what part of the player’s body a bullet hit. The gloves are not a commercially viable product just yet, and they probably won’t be for some time. The team was able to 3D-print a soft glove exoskeleton mold (or case mold, if you will) to serve as proof of a mass production opportunity. In other words, they are actively displaying support for a commercial release of such a device.