Virtual Reality’s Next Frontier

Seeing and hearing virtual worlds are amazing—but what about touching, smelling, and feeling them?

Posted: May 23, 2017

Just as Lexus engineers strive to impart a full sensory driving experience to each Lexus model—from the RC F’s auditory engine rumble to the LC’s tactile F1-style paddle-shifters—VR designers are pursuing the holy grails of stimulating (and ultra-realistic) sensory immersion beyond sight and sound.

These days, head-mounted displays are just part of the VR experience, thanks to vibrating haptic devices like the Oculus Touch and HTC Vive controller.

But here’s what’s around the corner. Researchers at the University of Utah have created a device, the Tactical Haptics Reactive Grip motion controller, which, thanks to a sliding bar system, generates a realistic feel of holding and wielding an item (like, say, a golf club at a simulated Pebble Beach Resort fairway).

That’s not all: full body haptic suits are coming. When married to a VR headset experience, they can potentially create a sense of full-body touch, like sitting in a virtual car seat. Just one example: the Tesla Suit, a full-body haptic suit that allows you to feel body contact in a VR environment. The suit transmits sensations to the body via neuromuscular electrical stimulation, which is a technology employed in rehabilitation and athletic training.

Of all sensations, smell is considered to be the pinnacle future achievement in VR realism—it’s the only sense directly linked to a part of our brain tied to feelings. (Ever smelled a certain scent and remembered a poignant past experience?)

So, obviously, imparting virtual scents will go a long way in generating a realistic, stimulating VR experience—imagine taking a 2030 Lexus model on a virtual race-track test drive, complete with the smell of burning rubber.

Already, a Japanese lab recently developed a prototype smell device that attaches to Oculus Rift goggles below the nose, using acoustic waves to send liquid-based smells toward your nostrils as you experience a VR environment. Another device in development, the Vaqso device, employs a small fan to increase or decrease smells as you move through a virtual world.

And then there’s hot and cold. Imagine a virtual glacier hike where you can sense the temperature on your face, or a virtual Baja beach that conveys a warm ocean breeze. VR is getting there.

Researchers are tinkering with suits that create temperature sensations, such as the Haptika, a vest that simlulates temperature changes in a virtual environment. Some developers are even experimenting with headset microcoolers that generate cool wind flows, as well as microionizers that emit warm water vapor to provide the feeling of a humid mist rising off a virtual jungle floor.

By Brian Gill