Soft robotics glove enables users to interact with virtual reality environments
The glove was designed with a very specific soft robotic component called a Mckibben muscle, using latex chambers covered with braided fibers.
Researchers have been challenged with the problem of just how to allow users to tactilely interact with a virtual reality (VR) environment.
Engineers at UC San Diego have developed a flexible glove that they believe will provide the necessary feedback for users in a virtual reality environment. The team is using soft robotics technology to make light, flexible gloves to realistically simulate the tactile feeling of playing a virtual piano keyboard.
Most other VR interface gloves tend to be bulky and heavy, making using them somewhat inefficient. The glove the UC San Diego engineers developed has a soft exoskeleton equipped with soft robotic muscles that make it much lighter and easier to use.
Currently, VR user interfaces consist of remote-like devices that vibrate when a user touches a virtual surface or object. “They’re not realistic,” said Jurgen Schulze, a researcher at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego and one of the paper’s senior authors. “You can’t touch anything, or feel resistance when you’re pushing a button. By contrast, we are trying to make the user feel like they’re in the actual environment from a tactile point of view.”
The team’s first prototype system has three main components: a Leap Motion sensor that detects the position and movement of the user’s hands; a custom fluidic control board that controls the gloves’ movements; and soft robotic components in the glove that individually inflate or deflate to mimic the forces that the user would encounter in the VR environment. The system interacts with a computer that displays a virtual piano keyboard with a river and trees in the background.
“This is a first prototype but it is surprisingly effective,” said Michael Tolley, a mechanical engineering professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and also a senior author.
The glove was designed with a very specific soft robotic component called a Mckibben muscle, essentially latex chambers covered with braided fibers. When the user moves their fingers, the he muscles respond like springs to apply force. The board controls the muscles by inflating and deflating them.
Researchers 3D-printed a mold to make the gloves’ soft exoskeleton and used silicone rubber for the exoskeleton, with Velcro straps embedded at the joints.
The team has tested the glove in an informal pilot study of 15 users, including two VR interface experts, which allowed them to play the piano in VR. They all agreed that the gloves increased the immersive experience.
Currently, the engineers are looking at ways to make the glove cheaper, less bulky and more portable. They also would like to bypass the Leap Motion device altogether to make system more compact.
“Our final goal is to create a device that provides a richer experience in VR,” Tolley said. “But you could imagine it being used for surgery and video games, among other applications.”
The engineers recently presented their research, which is still at the prototype stage, at the Electronic Imaging, Engineering Reality for Virtual Reality conference in Burlingame, Calif.