Some folks already find virtual reality devices prohibitively expensive, but the haptic feedback devices that attempt to pull the sensation of touch into the normally visually focused experience of virtual reality tend to command figures that only the likes of Elon Musk might find comfortable. Recently, though, researcher Inrak Choi and colleagues at Stanford’s SHAPE lab developed a haptic feedback device for simulating grasping motions that the rest of us may one day be able to afford.
It’s called the “Wolverine,” no doubt because its three rods on three fingers somewhat resemble the claws on the Marvel superhero’s hands. As the video below shows, it allows users to interact with objects in virtual reality with their hands much as they would in real life with the help of low-power brake-based locking sliders. As it’s powered by Bluetooth, users don’t have to worry about tripping over wires (a problem already complicating the use of headsets like the HTC Vive) and its light weight makes it easy to carry around.
It looks a little clunky here in the real world, but in virtual reality it must be wondrous. Reach out to grab, say, a Stanford mug in virtual reality, and a small motor and the sliders will work together and lock in place as your fingers grasp the edges of the imaginary mug, thus preventing your fingers from closing further. With your virtual reality visor of choice in place (which I imagine also helps to protect your eyes from the prongs), the mug apparently feels much like the real thing. As a bonus, the Wolverine is both powerful and energy efficient, allowing the device to withstand significant force between each of the three fingers and the thumb while only consuming a tiny bit of power each time the sliders brake to a halt.
The team, which presented its research in a recent paper, doesn’t specify how much they think the Wolverine should cost. But it’s almost certainly astronomically more affordable than some of the other attempts at delivering haptic feedback out there, such as Scott Devine’s solution we covered in July. In that case, Devine used a $25,000 Baxter robot and an HTC Vive to recreate the experience of pushing a series of boxes off a table. And despite its relatively low cost of manufacture, the Wolverine arguably counts as an improvement since its technology allows for various shapes, adjusting for each finger as needed.
For that matter, plenty of developers do amazing things with the out-of-the-box technology. I remain particularly impressed by the way Anton Hand recreated the experience of using an AR-15 rifle back in March while using only the existing controllers for the HTC Vive, effortlessly performing complex motions that would seemingly require a device like the Wolverine to do properly. But with something like the Wolverine and a host of delicate programming for each interactive part, virtual reality could become significantly more appealing than it currently is.