For some pet owners, being away from their furry companions for an extended period can be heartbreaking. Visiting a beloved pet on a video call just isn’t the same, so researchers at National Taiwan University developed a VR controller that allows the user to feel simulated fur while petting a virtual animal.
Created at the university’s Interactive Graphics (and Multimedia) Laboratory, in collaboration with Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, “HairTouch” was presented at the 2021 Computer-Human Interaction conference this week, and it’s another attempt to bridge the real world and virtual reality to make simulated experiences feel more authentic by engaging more than just a user’s sense of sight and sound. A VR controller, the motions of which can be tracked by a virtual reality headset so the movements of a user’s hands are mirrored in the simulation, was augmented with an elaborate contraption that uses a couple of tufts of fake fur that a finger can feel.
The HairTouch controller not only presents the fake fur when a user touches a furry animal in VR, but it’s also capable of simulating the feeling of different types of fur, and other surfaces, by manipulating those hairs as they extend and contract. By controlling the length of hairs, the fake fur can be made to feel softer and more pliable when it’s fully extended, or stiffer and more coarse when only a small amount of the fibers are sticking up.
To accurately simulate a pet, whose fur coat doesn’t stick straight up like the fibers on a paint brush do, the fake fur on the HairTouch controller can also be bent from side to side, depending on the user’s hand and finger movements in the simulation, and the orientation of the virtual animal. Petting your dog from 3,000 miles away doesn’t seem like the best use of hundreds of dollars worth of VR gear (unless you’re a really devoted dog owner), but the controller can be used to simulate the feel of other textures, too, including fabrics, so the research could also be a welcome upgrade to virtual shopping—a promised use of the technology that hasn’t really moved past the concept stage.
Don’t expect to see the HairTouch available as an official Oculus accessory anytime soon (or even ever), as it’s currently just a research project and the prototype isn’t quite as sleek as the VR hardware available to consumers now. But it’s a clever idea that could find its way into other hardware, and other applications, helping virtual reality blur the lines with reality.