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For all the leaps and bounds that motion tracking and virtual reality have made in recent years, haptic stimulation has largely taken a back seat to visual stimulation. However, a new device aims to put a more tangible virtual experience in the driver’s seat.
Developed by Rajinder Sodhi from the University of Illinois and Ivan Poupyrev from Disney Research, Aireal is a series of small machines that pufff air rings towards users, allowing them to feel objects and textures while engaging with virtual content.
Aireal consists of five speaker-like modules — connected to a virtual reality system, computer, television — that can be positioned all around the user. The devices track body movements, then shoot low frequencies through an air nozzle to create vortices in the shape of small smoke rings.
“The sensation is quite pleasant,” Poupyrev told Fast Co.Design. “It’s not like air blowing onto your body. The air ring is a traveling low-pressure bubble. When it collapses, the air from outside rushes in, and it creates force at this particular point. It’s very localized, sharp puff of air.”
In theory, Aireal could be used to create more enhanced environments, whether the machine is used in tandem with virtual reality systems, gaming systems or while simply watching a video. By pulsing its air bubbles, the device can mimic water, wind and other textures. For example, Aireal could provide the sensation of swimming through bubbles if supplemented with a virtual reality experience. Same goes for watching a video of a flock of seagulls flying by — the user would be able to feel the wing flaps.
The developers have acknowledged a couple technical hiccups, though. The haptic machines make a small noise, like a low pitch knock, and there is a slight 150-millisecond delay between onscreen actions and air bubbles. While developers are ironing out the kinks, in the meantime, they’ve managed to incorporate the delay into the experience.
“The demo we’re doing is very simple. You have a table display with a projection from the bottom. There’s a butterfly that flies around this table. You touch the butterfly, it’s projected on your hand and you can see a butterfly flapping its wings,” Poupyrev said. “If you think about trying to pick up a butterfly, you have to move very slowly. So inherently, people move slowly. In this interaction, the delay isn’t unnatural. It’s part of the story.”