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Watch a lightweight glove allow users to ‘feel’ objects in virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) seems so lifelike—until you try to reach out and touch something. Now, researchers have solved this tactile problem—with a new kind of glove that allows wearers to actually feel objects in their artificial environments without clunky machines weighing down their arms.

Existing VR gloves mostly allow the users to feel the texture of an object using vibrations. They don’t sense shape, or they require heavy motors or air compressors to put pressure on the users’ hands to do so. In the new study, researchers wanted to make a light, nonrestrictive glove with an open palm that felt natural to wear, while providing realistic feedback when the user touched a virtual object.

To create the glove, they outfitted a piece of soft silicone with sensors that detect hand motions and actuators—small silicone bubbles coupled with electrodes to generate an electric force—that provide physical feedback to the user’s fingertips.

A team member wore the glove to interact with a virtual chess board. When the virtual hand touched a piece, software prompted the glove to produce electricity, which caused the center part of the glove’s fingertips to fill with air, giving a sense of the object’s shape, the team reports today in Scientific Reports.

The entire device, including the battery and circuit attached to a strap around the user’s wrist, weighs about one-sixth of a kilogram, about the same as a medium-size apple. The researchers suggest the glove—just a prototype for now—could be linked with different VR software to let users easily pick up objects in games or feel realistic sensation when they press a button or pull a lever in a training simulation.