VR Device Uses Chemicals to Bring Different Sensations to Skin

In news we really hope Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t read about, a team of researchers from the University of Chicago’s Human Computer Integration Lab has created a new virtual reality (VR) setup that deploys chemicals to deliver physical sensations to users’ skin. The VR setup is able to inflict everything from numbing sensations to warming ones for users. And, most frighteningly, sensations that legitimately sting.

A person using a VR headset and haptic electronics that use chemicals to deliver various physical sensations.

Gizmodo picked up on the new VR setup, which its creators outlined in a recent scientific paper. The researchers say their suite of VR gadgets stands as “a new class of haptic device” that relies on delivering “liquid stimulants” to a user’s skin. The team refers to this new iteration of haptic feedback as chemical haptics.

In the video immediately below the researchers from the Integration Lab demonstrate how the chemical haptics work. As the video notes, the researchers’ VR device is able to deliver “safe and small doses” of key, active ingredients that can catalyze physical sensations on the skin. These chemicals include sanshool, which delivers a tingling sensation; lidocaine, which delivers a numbing sensation; menthol for cooling; capsaicin for warming, and, finally, cinnamaldehyde for stinging sensations.

The researchers say the VR system delivers its chemical sensations to the skin via “self-contained” wearable devices; ones that a user can wear anywhere on their body. The wearable devices consist of soft silicone patches that use “micropumps” to push the liquid chemicals through channels that rest against a user’s skin. The user’s skin, in turn, is able to absorb the chemicals as they pass through the channels.

The user in the video wears both a VR headset and something that looks reminiscent of Leela’s Wrist LoJack-a-mater for sensations. The demonstration sees the user tap on her wrist, open doors, and even walk around in a snowy forest. The sensations all seem more or less benign, except for the “electric shocks” sensation. (Kind of shocking they’d include that sensation, TBH.)

Haptic VR Setup Uses Chemicals to Apply Sensations to Skin_1

Unsurprisingly, the researchers say participants in their initial trial overwhelmingly indicated increased immersion with the use of chemical haptics than without them. Apparently, the VR setup is most suitable for “slow-changing” haptic events; such as the growing stinging sensation of a fresh wound. Or slowly rising ambient temperatures. In the future, researchers want to work on creating more dynamic haptic signals with different chemical mixes. And while that sounds a bit terrifying, we’ll happily get in line for something that makes us feel like we’re flying.

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