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Chemical Haptics can bring touch sensations like cold and heat to VR

It’s a little surprising how far VR has come in recent years. Home devices are not uncommon and cost as much as your standard console. With equipment like the Oculus Quest 2you don’t even need a computer or cables to get this on-demand VR immersion.

But Virtual Reality is all about the big dream. It’s not called Virtual Close to Reality. VR is about making experiences feel real in ways other mediums still can’t. New products are coming out all the time, like VR mats and haptic body kits to try to enhance the experience, but there are so many nuances that we still can’t translate to digital worlds.

However, one more hurdle of reality is being skillfully overcome by a team from the University of Chicago (by new scientist). Jasmine Lu, Ziwei Liu, Jas Brooks and Pedro Lopes are developing a new type of haptic feedback that they called chemical haptic, and it sounds super cool. As well as hot, tingling and numb.

Lu’s website talks about a role that will soon be released to the public. It shows two devices built by the team that deliver liquid stimulants to the skin of the person using them. They are soft silicone patches that stay on the skin and use micropumps to deliver the chemicals to the wearer. One crosses the face over the bridge of the nose, delivering chemicals to the cheeks, while the other stays on the forearms.

The summary explains that the team worked with different chemicals to provide different sensations. Five chemicals have been found to provide long-lasting results in safe doses, although my sensitive skin worries a little. Sanshool provides a tingling sensation, lidocaine to numb, cinnamaldehyde sounds wonderful and causes stinging sensations, and heating and cooling are provided by capsaicin and menthol respectively.

The team worked on five different VR experiences with the chemical haptics and users rated them as much more immersive with the new technology than without.

The use cases for games are quite exciting. Being able to simulate the weather in games with sensations of heat and cold feels very immersive. Feeling the heat of a nearby explosion or a numb sensation in an injured body part are also interesting concepts. Perhaps in the near future we will all be buying chemical packs for our VR machines to really feel the burn.

But that’s not all teams are working. There is a device to increase dexterity for electrical muscle stimulation. Another one that changes the way objects feel when you touch them, and a bunch of touch-related research. I’m excited to see what the games of the future will look like with people like that in the cabinet.

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