Virtual reality (VR) provides designers with the ability to generate and view three dimensional (3D) digital objects like never before. Instead of relying on 2D representations, designers can walk around 3D assets, view them from underneath or above, and use handheld remotes to create or adjust orientations. These affordances operate under the goal of generating life-like (or better than life) design experiences that drawings or a 2D screen simply cannot allow. Although it showcases improvement over the norm for certain experiences, VR won’t fully reach its goal until haptic gloves proliferate. This newer input tool will allow the 3D system to give designers needed feedback functionality. With haptic gloves, users can feel the shape and texture of objects, while benefiting from finger-specific input data when interacting with the assets.
Haptic gloves tracked in 3D space will allow designers to more accurately and precisely manipulate objects, which is pertinent to their craft. Through the use of little pneumatic actuators, resistance tendons, or a combination of both, haptic gloves create an illusion of touch that enables designers to feel object edges and surfaces in order to truly sense their location.
Current VR controllers incorporate a rumble when the user passes over an object, but such functionality cannot provide the same level of fidelity offered by gloves. While controllers usually rumble the same regardless of where on a virtual object they cross, haptic gloves enable a variety of sensations specific to the nuances of the object’s body. Feedback catered to the shape of the 3D object also inherently localizes sensation to specific parts of the hand and finger based on where they cross the object. All this extra functionality improves usability and opens up the potential for advanced tactile chains (feeling fingers hold sculpting tool, then feeling the tool touch another object, for example).
Tactile feedback makes for an easier time when attempting the fundamental design task of selecting objects or portions of objects. Tactile selection improves the user experience by mitigating one of the most common VR pain points: accidentally “missing” aspects when trying to select or move them. Haptic feedback increases the designer’s locational awareness of objects and their constituent parts in 3D space, which creates a more effective experience making selections. The act of selection is such an important feature since it serves as the base for further manipulation. It is also surprisingly complex, such that entire dissertations are written on how to technically execute, a cause haptic gloves should.
Nuanced Object Manipulation
Tactile feedback provided by haptic gloves creates an intuitive experience when adjusting the orientation of small and large objects. Designers can hold small objects in their hands as they would in the real world, and can use fingers in a precise manner to adjust the position or orientation of larger, floating objects.
Thanks to the many additional, hand-specific, data points that are created by the gloves and fed to the 3D system, the hand can be directly tracked. These extra data points enable the system to create a simulation of the designer’s hands based on their actual states, as opposed to remotes, which can only serve as proxies. Unlocking hands from the shackles of remotes when interfacing with the VR scene dramatically increases the degrees of freedom associated with their movements.
Since the data points are more closely connected to actual hands, they also help refine the 3D representations of their actions—to smooth their movements and reduce jitter in the objects they hold. Each of these technological advancements compound to create an improvement over the current controllers that still demonstrate basic tracking issues from time to time. Though, this is not to say that haptic gloves are currently flawless in their execution. They have their own hurdles to pass, but possess greater potential, and are making progress such that it’s reasonable to hold this confidence.
Up to this point, we’ve mainly discussed how haptic gloves can provide the tactile sensations needed to feel objects. Such sensations help trick the mind into reinforcing an object’s spatial occupation, which helps with selecting, editing, and manipulating digital assets. Although this method of emphasizing spatial occupation makes it easier to treat 3D objects as actual objects, it’s still physically possible to pass through them with your motions or edits, as they are essentially ghosts you can feel. Being able to pass through them is sometimes desired, but may hinder design practices in many situations. An option for kinesthetic force feedback may present a solution.
Force feedback technology offers the ability to prevent users from passing through objects with their fingers or hands in VR. Starting with smaller objects that designers grasp, force feedback employs resistance tendons attached to the back of fingers to prevent their hold from squeezing an object past certain points—the edges of space occupied by the object. There are currently limits on the maximum force this technology can withstand, but advances are being made.
In the future beyond resistance tendons, mechanical “arms” attached to gloves provide the force one may experience upon pressing against surfaces of larger objects. Such arms may also possess the ability to simulate weight. Some haptic companies actually hold it as a goal to create entire exo suits that create full body haptic and force feedback experiences for the ultimate simulation of reality.
Accurate Wielding of Tools
Combining tactile and force feedback capabilities empowers gloves to produce sensations that convincingly simulate the physicality of numerous handheld devices. Instead of holding a remote that inherently contradicts the shape of many tools, with haptic gloves, designers can feel as if they’re actually holding the given tool. The combination of tactile and force feedback produces the illusion of a tool’s rigid body. Designers can feel like their holding pencils, carving sticks, or paint brushes of any type or size, as well as anything else they can imagine that would fit in their grasp. Manipulating digital assets with the use of tools that actually feel as if they’re in your hand increases the authenticity and precision of design work in VR.
Editing and Testing Merged Together
Haptic gloves let designers feel 3D products throughout the design process; not just after a model is manufactured. This immediate feedback allows for a much more iterative workflow, which helps to create a better product. Since time is saved with each iteration, as gloves cut out the waiting associated with physical renderings, more time is then available for edits or other types of work. Jockeying between adjusting an asset and testing the change with a render essentially blurs into one continuous process that can occur within VR to save time and increase efficacy of editing.
More Creative Freedom
Lastly, as consumers start incorporating haptic gloves into their own VR use, designers gain the creative freedom to craft game and leisure experiences not previously possible. They will create environments that include the sense of touch as part of the experience, which is a huge deal for immersion. Force feedback technology then furthers the illusion by adding kinesthetic reinforcement making it so VR matter cannot be passed through, if so chosen.
In the near future, the simulation of matter will benefit from the technology’s ability to assign weight to VR objects through coil actuators, complex joints, or mechanical arms that move dynamically with the glove. All these advances further empower VR to become the design tool it is meant to be. They also bring us one step closer to living simulated realities—a topic for another day.