One of the remaining struggles with making virtual reality experiences feel more ‘real’ is the lack of tangible interactions between the user and objects that only exist in VR. To help bridge that gap, Microsoft Research has developed a wearable device with a hammer-like appendage that swings in and out of a VR user’s palm, making it feel like they’re actually picking up, catching, or grasping virtual items.
Star Trek: The Next Generation teased us with the ideal virtual reality setup through the use of holodecks that allowed users to explore and physically interact with any world, object, or person. But the holodeck was created using 24th-century force field technology, and we don’t have anything even close to that back here in the 21st century. Instead, we have PIVOT, a wearable haptic device designed and built by Microsoft researchers Eyal Ofek, Mar Gonzalez Franco, and Mike Sinclair.
Once a user has strapped a virtual reality visor to their head, the PIVOT devices are strapped to each wrist and then connected to the VR system so that they can interact with it in real-time. When a user’s hands are empty in the VR world, the PIVOT’s swinging hammer (or haptic handle as Microsoft refers to the mechanism) rests against the wearer’s arm where it’s out of their hand and out of the way. But when they reach for and pick up an object in the virtual world they’re exploring, the PIVOT handle swings into the palm of their hand giving them a real-world equivalent to grasp and hold onto which adds a physical element to enhance what their eyes are seeing.
When an object is released, the haptic handle then swings out of the way again, as demonstrated with someone picking apples off a tree in a VR world. A pair of PIVOTs can also work in tandem to recreate other experiences, such as picking up a tray using the handles on each side, or holding a virtual stick in one hand and a virtual marshmallow to be roasted in the other. The motors that power the swinging PIVOT mechanism can also be used to simulate other physical but subtle interactions. By continually pushing the handle into the user’s palm once it’s swung into place, objects can feel like they have added heft and weight as if gravity is pulling on them harder.
Is PIVOT a practical solution to one of the more challenging shortcomings of current virtual reality hardware? Having to strap more hardware to your body isn’t ideal, but the design is relatively simple and streamlined, and doesn’t limit mobility or where the VR hardware can be used. The functionality of the swinging handles could also be enhanced with additional game controls and buttons, or the ability to change its shape and size to better replicate the form of VR objects. It’s no holodeck, but it’s a clever solution given the limitations of our current technologies.