German engineers have created a VR controller that gives you the sensation of weight in VR.
Haptic feedback from your controllers plays a pretty big role in your VR experience. It adds a physical layer that allows you to feel digital objects in VR (sort of). Hit an object with your virtual hand and the controllers will quickly vibrate, giving you that sensation of two objects colliding; take a punch from Clubber Lang in Creed: Rise to Glory, and you’ll feel your controller rumble. Unfortunately, one thing any standard VR controller can’t do is give you the sensation of resistance or being able to feel the weight of different sized objects.
So how do you create haptic weight and feedback in VR?
Two German engineers from the Research Center for Artificial Intelligence have come up with a unique VR controller that uses a dual folding fan-like system that opens and closes in different configurations—based on what is happening in the VR experience—to give you dynamic and passive haptic feedback.
Put simply, they’ve created artificial weight in VR through drag and weight shifting.
In a recently published paper, André Zenner and Antonio Krüger outlined their work on a system they are calling Drag:on that gives you the sensation of haptic weight through different types of feedback based on body movement, the digital object being interacted with, and how you handle said digital object.
Zenner and Krüger first explored this concept two years ago with a stick-like device they called Shifty. It was a VR controller that used an internal weight that moved back and forth to create the illusion of weight. Pick up an item and the internal weight moved forward, making the virtual object feel heavy. The larger the object, the further the weight would extend. Let go of the object and the weight would retract back into the handle.
Since then, the project has evolved into the Drag:on VR controller. Instead of using an internal weight that moves back and forth, the engineers switched to a controller that uses a combination of 3D printed parts, a single button to activate the controller, an HTC Vive Tracker, two MG996R servo motors for actuation, and two semi-large folding fans that can open to an area up to 650% their actual size in 570ms to create drag.
When you grab a virtual object that has weight, for example, a small brick, the folding fans on the Drag:on controller will open causing air resistance as you pick up the brick. Picking up a larger brick, and the fans open up all the way, resulting in more resistance.
When the folding fans are completely open, the controller kind of looks like a futuristic tennis racket.
To test their work, Zenner and Krüger explored 5 different VR scenarios with their unique controller:
Perception of Virtual Object Scales looked at creating weight and resistance by holding different sized digital signs and waving it back and forth in VR. Smaller signs would get the least resistance so the fans wouldn’t open that wide. Larger signs, on the other hand, meant that the fans would open wider causing more drag in the VR handset.
Perception of VR Object Materials was similar to Virtual Object Scales. However, instead of a flat sign, the digital object was a shovel. The heavier the shovel, the larger the fan would open.
Perception of Virtual Gas Flows would have you holding a virtual board near an opening with air blowing out of it. Move your board closer to the opening, the fan would open, and you’ll feel the resistance of air pushing on the board. If you move your board up or down at the source of the flowing air, you’ll feel the shift of resistance from top to bottom with the folding fans opening and closing at different points.
Perception of Virtual Ratchet Resistance lets you grab a tool in VR to loosen or tighten a bolt. As you turn your tool to tighten the bolt, the fans will open causing more resistance. Turn your tool the other direction, and the fans will close giving you the sensation of the bolts loosening.
Perception of Virtual Wagon Weights involves pulling or pushing a heavy object in VR. As you push or pull, the fans open and close causing drag or resistance. Push hard and quickly, and the fans swing wide open, causing more resistance.
Data collected from different case studies showed that individuals who tried the Drag:on VR controllers report a genuine sensation of weight and resistance when handling digital objects. For now, the project is still in its developmental stages and it’s unknown if the company will actually create a consumer version.
Worst case scenario, the parts are easily obtainable on the internet. So go for it!
Featured Image Credit: Association for Computer Machinery