Researchers try zapping muscles with electricity to simulate walls in VR

Today's VR solutions are almost exclusively focused on two of the five sense, those being sight and hearing. Eventually it is conceivable that smell and taste will enter the equation, though probably not before touch. Simulating touch, after all, is the next logical step for VR so that users can feel the objects they see. The question is, how will it be implemented?

Researchers at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, developed a wearable contraption that uses electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to simulate walls and other objects in VR. It's a pretty crude setup in its current implementation—a backpack with a medical grade 8-channel muscle stimulator, with wires and electrodes protruding out—but the idea is to send small electrical shocks to create the sensation of touching an object.

The system simulates up to four different muscle groups—biceps, forceps, pectoral, and wrist.

"When pushing a button mounted to a vertical surface, for example, the system actuates biceps and wrist," the researchers say.

This is not all that different from the stimulators physical therapists use. In fact, I've had similar machines hooked up to my quads following an ACL repair. What I remember from that experience is that it's not fun when the voltage is cranked up. I'd be a little wary of attaching multiple electrodes up and town my arms and chest, but supposedly this contraption doesn't hurt.

Through trial and error, the researchers discovered that using shorter pulses was the key to creating a realistic sensation of touching an object, such as a wall.

"This design uses a brief EMS pulse (of 200-300 ms, using the user’s calibrated maximum intensity) where the EMS propels the user’s hand backwards, removing it from the virtual object it is trying to touch. We achieve this with an EMS pulse of still reasonably low intensity, which, like all other EMS signals in our system, is pain-free at all times," the researchers say.

Having built a cumbersome prototype, the researchers ultimately envision a more streamlined solution, perhaps a body suit that would slip on quickly and easily. One of the researchers also told Fast Company that "the next step is bigger force, more physical sensations."

It's an interesting idea, though if it comes to fruition, let's hope that malware writers focus their attention elsewhere. Otherwise, getting hacked could be more painful than is typically the case.

Paul Lilly

Paul has been playing PC games and raking his knuckles on computer hardware since the Commodore 64. He does not have any tattoos, but thinks it would be cool to get one that reads LOAD"*",8,1. In his off time, he rides motorcycles and wrestles alligators (only one of those is true).