The sense of being immersed in a simulated environment plays an important role in virtual reality, but achieving it isn’t easy because it involves all of our senses. Some senses, such as hearing are fairly easy to stimulate with inputs that reflect the simulated environment—a pair of high-quality headphones gets the job done perfectly well.
Other senses, such as the sense of temperature are much more difficult to stimulate without resorting to various energy-hungry solutions that couldn’t reasonably be scaled to meet the needs of most VR players. Now, researchers based out of the Human Computer Integration Lab at the University of Chicago’s Computer Science Department believe they’re onto something potentially groundbreaking.
In the recently published paper entitled “Chemical Haptics: Rendering Haptic Sensations via Topical Stimulants,” they describe a self-contained wearable that can be worn anywhere on the user’s skin and used to simulate different temperatures, as well as other sensations, by pushing various liquid stimulants through channels that are open to the user’s skin.
“Our approach presents two unique benefits. First, it enables sensations, such as numbing, not possible with existing haptic devices,” states the research team in their paper. “Second, our approach offers a new pathway, via the skin’s chemical receptors, for achieving multiple haptic sensations using a single actuator, which would otherwise require combining multiple actuators.”
The researchers tested the device in two studies to create temporal profiles of sensations elicited by several chemicals and evaluate how well users perceive them in interactive VR experiences. The used chemicals included sanshool (tingling), lidocaine (numbing), cinnamaldehyde (stinging), capsaicin (warming), and menthol (cooling). On average, participants found the VR experiences to be more immersive with the chemicals used on the skin.