While VR gaming has come a long way since its bulky and cumbersome beginnings, it often lacks a fundamental element that can create a truly immersive experience: the sense of touch. Fortunately, engineers at Carnegie Mellon University have created a new device that lets you feel sensations on your lips, teeth, and tongue in virtual worlds—so if you can’t brush your teeth in real life, at least you’ll be able to do it in VR.
The device utilizes a series of ultrasound modules called transducers that are attached to the bottom of a VR headset. The transducers help create haptic feedback, or tech that creates sensory feelings of touch, by shooting out ultrasound waves to your mouth. This creates a haptic experience that lets your lips “feel” what you might encounter in the digital world such as falling rain and water fountains.
“Ultrasound waves have peaks and valleys, so we’re able to time it so that when the peak of multiple waves hits the same spot on your face at the same time, you can actually feel it,” Vivian Shen, a robotics PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, told The Daily Beast. “That’s enough pressure that it actually dents your skin.”
Shen co-authored a paper about the device with Craig Shultz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII); and Chris Harrison, associate professor of the HCII. The team was also to replicate sensations such as wind whipping as you drive a car, a toothbrush cleaning your teeth, and—horrifyingly—spiders crawling across your lips.
To achieve the results, the researchers relied on the natural sensitivity of the human mouth. While there have been VR devices that tried to replicate haptic sensations on the mouth before, they were impractical—with one device using a small robotic arm that would flick a rubber feather across the wearer’s lips. Instead, the CMU team utilized ultrasound waves, which are high frequency sound waves that can travel through the air and cause sensations when in contact with human skin.
The team created an array of 64 small ultrasound transducers that focus the waves on the wearer’s mouth, increasing the sensory effects. It’s not perfect. While it worked to create mouth-specific effects like brushing teeth or drinking water, it didn’t work as well for sensations that involved larger parts of the body like walking through cobwebs. However, it does offer some of the most promising results for haptic feedback on a user’s mouth.
“Acoustic pressure is made from all the transducers,” Shen said. “That’s why we need an array of transducers. Depending on the angle and placement, they have to be fired at a different time so that the peak of the wave will hit the same spot as the one next to it. What it feels like is a tiny vibrating node in space.”
Aside from gaming, Shen said that there are a wide range of applications for the device including training simulations for medical professions like dentists and orthodontists. Doing this type of training in VR can allow its wearers to perform mock procedures from anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately for any lonely-heart gamers out there, the technology isn’t quite sophisticated enough to create the sensation of kissing someone in VR. Shen said that this is because the feeling of ultrasound can only come from a very small node. “You can’t make this giant ball of feeling,” she said. “That’s why all our example sensations are very small like a spider on your face or stuff like wind and rain.”
So don’t expect to be smooching up with a zombie in The Walking Dead VR game anytime soon.