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This Shape-Shifting, Pin-Headed Robot Lets You Feel Virtual Objects With Your Bare Hands

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Virtual reality headsets today use your eyes and ears to make simulated experiences seem more real, but what about your other senses? Researchers at Stanford University have come up with a way for your hands and fingers to feel virtual objects with a unique robot that looks like an animated version of those Pin Art toys.

ShapeShift looks like a small desktop PC augmented with a dense grid of rectangular ‘pins’ on top. When it’s moved around on a flat surface like a table, a tracking marker syncs the location of the ShapeShift box to the location of the user’s hands in a virtual reality world. When the user’s virtual hands reach out to touch a virtual object, the pins atop the ShapeShift extend and retract to form a crude representation of that object in the real world, allowing it to be felt and touched.

The ShapeShift box can also be mounted on an omnidirectional robot platform, so instead of the VR user having to move it around, the box moves itself, guiding the user’s hands to a specific object or experience.


A bunch of rectangular metal rods moving up and down won’t quite recreate the experience of, say, petting a fluffy kitten that could exist in a user’s VR world, but were the density of the rods increased in future versions, more detailed and authentic-feeling shapes could be rendered. While it’s fascinating research even at this small scale, imagine an entire room with wall-to-wall undulating rods instead of a floor: The terrain inside a VR experience could be perfectly recreated under foot, allowing someone to physically climb over hills, debris, or other objects, enhancing the overall experience.

[Stanford Shape Lab via YouTube]