The SIGGRAPH 2019 conference brought a number of haptic feedback developments to light. One of the most intriguing addressed a missing element in our current solutions – the sensation of weight in VR. Up to now, our haptic devices have focused on our hands and body. You feel like you are touching or grasping an object, or have the feeling of something passing through you. In its simplest form, the feedback comes through our controllers. More advanced versions require gloves or hardware on our hands. Achieving a full haptic experience usually means wearing a vest or a full-body suit.
The Drag:on controller that brings the sensation of weight in VR isn’t a miniature device. You’re essentially holding a wand in your hands that expands depending on the VR experience. But it’s a start – a significant advance – to achieving the seemingly impossible in virtual reality.
In the long run, we need these solutions. Virtual reality is increasingly interactive and needs to move beyond vibrating hand controllers. Passing an object to Lucy in Wolves in the Walls is an engaging experience. But the one thing that is missing is the sensation of weight.
Achieving the Sensation of Weight in VR
The Drag:on device is from André Zenner and Antonio Krüger, two German engineers at the Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. It’s a dual-folding fan controller that looks like a futuristic tennis racket. The fans open and close depending on the weight or resistance of the object you’re interacting with.
Here’s their four-minute video demonstrating different use cases:
We tried it out at SIGGRAPH and it was incredibly easy to use. The most remarkable aspect of the device is that it’s primarily made out of 3D printed parts and two MG996R servo motors. You could easily create it in a 3D lab or at home with the right hardware. It’s attached to a Vive Tracker though we’d love to see something that could be used with the Oculus Connect controllers.
Devices that bring a sensation of weight in VR are essential for training scenarios in engineering and other fields. Consider what this adds to the experience of tightening a screw or a valve, or lifting and carrying an object. But it’s just as crucial for storytelling in our interaction with characters and avatars in virtual environments.
The Drag:on controller is an initial but remarkable step in replicating the real world in the virtual. We have a way to go before we completely blur that boundary. But it’s the experiments with devices like this that will take us there.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.