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Virtual Reality, Haptics and 3D Printing

2015 is shaping up to be an important year for a few technologies that have been around for a long time. Perhaps even more exciting are the new experiences that we can start to imagine when they converge and hit the mainstream. Virtual reality, haptics, and 3D printing are emerging on the popular culture scene and creating quite the stir in the process.

Virtual Reality or VR, as it is known short hand, has been around for a long time, since at least the mid-1960s. Its goal is to transport users into a completely different reality, one created by a computer, but which is so convincing that users forget their physical bodies and inhabit this new reality. This technology has been used in military and industrial applications for decades but has generally been too expensive for consumers.

In addition to head-mounted displays (e.g. Oculus, Gear VR), virtual reality experiences rely on some type of interface device to enable users to interact with and manipulate the virtual world. These come in many varieties, including sensor gloves, styli, and game controllers. The usefulness and realism of a virtual environment is directly limited by the control interface. The current trend of using eye-gaze or touchpads on head mounted displays to control one’s VR experience are barely functional, and certainly not immersive.

It turns out that without some type of tangible interaction, even the best gesture interface does not create the sense of immersion needed for a true virtual reality experience. Humans really do understand and create belief in the world through the use of their hands. There’s overwhelming evidence in the research that users are much more proficient at performing tasks in virtual environments with tactile information than without. It’s for this reason that, while I think camera based gesture technologies like Leap Motion have their place, they don’t provide any tangibility, so there is still something critical missing from the experience.

In virtual reality gaming, there are some good options: game controllers, including the Razer Hydra, provide a decent tangible interface. However, these controllers inherit the form factor and tactile experience of non-VR game controllers.

Things will get really interesting when VR experience designers appreciate the value of an AR concept called Projection Augmentation. The idea is that by projecting an interface directly onto a physical object, it can be made into an intuitive user interface: users can pick up the object and get all the inherited tactile benefits of the actual physical object, but with a flexible digital overlay. As it turns out, this idea can also be used to create perceptual illusions: a normal cylinder can be made to feel convex or concave based on the visual overlay. This is powerful, because it allows us to utilize the way people naturally perceive the world to provide interface flexibility.

For immersive VR, the concept carries over: a tangible interface (for example, a game controller) can be tracked, rendered in the virtual space and then given new physical properties by the VR experience designer. This is where haptics can play a role, expanding the design space with vibration, texture and shape.

Haptics has been around for more than 50 years. Way back in the 1950s, it was developed as a way to enable technicians to service nuclear reactors by providing an operator with tactile feedback from a robot down in the fuel chamber. The idea was that tactile sensors and video cameras could capture the experience of a robot (in a dangerous situation) and when this was presented to a remote operator, it would create a sense of presence (more accurately, telepresence).

As humans, we perceive and understand the world through our senses. However, touch and vision complement each other in a unique way: vision allows us to get the big picture while touch allows us to explore, understand and feel a specific part of that big picture. Only when we can touch and feel something do we believe with certainty that what we’re looking at is real.

Of course, there are limits to how a preexisting physical object can have its properties expanded virtually, which brings us to 3D printing. If my VR controller is some type of physical artifact with haptic capabilities, then the interactive virtual experiences that can be created are limited only by what I (as a designer) can reasonably convince users that this artifact is. If I can now augment this physical artifact with arbitrary 3D printed models, the possibilities expand dramatically. Together, these three technologies enable experiences that are truly worthy of the name “virtual reality,” and line between virtual experiences and real world experiences begins to blur.

This year, we are seeing mainstream products with haptics, VR, and 3D printing coming to market. Taken together, these technologies will enable the next generation of human experience. It will be fascinating to see new kinds of entertainment and social interactions unfold as a result.

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