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Inside Reality Labs Research: Bringing Touch to the Virtual World

  • We’re sharing Reality Labs’ progress in researching and developing haptic gloves to bring the sense of touch to the metaverse in the future.
  • Over the past seven years, the team has made significant breakthroughs — from pushing the boundaries of soft robotics to developing the world’s first, high-speed microfluidic processor.

One of our Reality Labs Research teams is focused on inventing the future of interaction in augmented and virtual reality. This team’s goal is to create the technology to solve one of the central challenges of the metaverse: How do we touch the virtual world?

Imagine working on a virtual 3D puzzle with a friend’s realistic 3D avatar. As you pick up a virtual puzzle piece from the table, your fingers automatically stop moving as you feel it within your grasp. You feel the sharpness of the cardboard’s edges and the smoothness of its surface as you hold it up for closer inspection, followed by a satisfying snap as you fit it into place. 

To enable this experience and bring touch to the metaverse, the team is developing haptic gloves: comfortable and customizable gloves that can reproduce a range of sensations in virtual worlds, including texture, pressure and vibration. While we’re still in the early stages of this research, the goal is to one day pair the gloves with your VR headset for an immersive experience like playing in a concert or poker game in the metaverse, and eventually they’d work with your AR glasses.

Pioneering New Scientific Domains with Haptic Glove Research

Building these gloves is a challenge that requires inventing entirely new domains of scientific research. Over the past seven years, the team has pushed human-computer interaction forward across dozens of disciplines, creating new breakthroughs to make haptic gloves a reality. Here are a few examples:

  • Perceptual Science: Because current technology can’t fully recreate the physics of the real world in VR, we’re exploring the idea of combining auditory, visual and haptic feedback for things like convincing a wearer’s perceptual system that it’s feeling an object’s weight.
  • Soft robotics: Existing mechanical actuators create too much heat for such a glove to be worn comfortably all day. To solve this, we’re creating new soft actuators — tiny, soft motors all over the glove that move in concert to deliver sensation to the wearer’s hand.
  • Microfluidics: We’re developing the world’s first high-speed microfluidic processor — a small microfluidic chip that controls the air flow that moves the actuators. The use of air (a fluid) means we can fit many more actuators on the glove than would otherwise be possible with electronic circuitry.
  • Hand tracking: Even with a way to control air flow, the system needs to know when and where to deliver the right sensations. We’re building advanced hand-tracking technology to enable it to identify precisely where your hand is in a virtual scene, whether you’re in contact with a virtual object and how your hand is interacting with the object.
  • Haptic rendering: Our haptic renderer sends precise instructions to the actuators on the hand, based on an understanding of things like the hand’s location and properties of the virtual objects (such as texture, weight and stiffness) that the hand comes in contact with.

Our haptic glove project started as a moonshot, but it’s increasingly feasible as we continue to innovate and complete research. Over the last seven years, we’ve pioneered new techniques, technologies and disciplines, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with soft robotics and inventing entirely new materials and manufacturing processes. Moving each of these research areas forward requires time to get the technology right, so while our haptic glove research will remain in the lab for now, we’re excited about the progress we’ve made and the potential it shows for a virtual world you can touch.

Learn more about our haptic glove project.



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