Emergent Tech

Microsoft floats feelers for fake worlds

Haptic feedback controllers promise to put people in touch with virtual worlds

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco

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At least two crucial ingredients are missing from virtual and augmented reality: revenue and a sense of touch.

The industry is confident that the revenue is coming as hardware costs fall, awareness rises, and expectations become more realistic. Consultancy Greenlight Insights reckons global VR revenue will reach $75 billion by 2021. But at present VR hardware makers remain shy about disclosing sales.

Microsoft, which acknowledged last year that it had sold only "thousands" of HoloLens kits, has been busily trying to address the fact that virtual interaction is fundamentally unsatisfying because you can't touch anything, at least until you collide with a non-virtual object.

On Thursday, Redmond's boffins disclosed their latest bit of kit to improve the experience of goggles and graphics – the CLAW, a multifunction haptic controller prototype designed to simulate tactile feedback when attempting to touch the graphics rendered through face-hugging hardware.

CLAW is not an acronym – Microsoft uses capital letters for no good reason. It's designed to give explorers of virtual worlds something to hold onto. The device provides the ability to grasp virtual objects, to touch virtual surfaces, and to trigger events.

While other VR controllers can be used for similar sorts of interaction, the Microsoft CLAW offers a wider range of interactive possibilities, including the ability to simulate both soft and hard surfaces.

"A force sensor embedded in the index finger rest and changing the motor’s response profiles enables the sensing of objects of different materials, from full rigid wooden block to an elastic sponge," Microsoft explains in its post on the subject.

Redmond's researchers have developed another touch-oriented tool, dubbed the Haptic Revolver. It stimulates various surfaces using a spinning wheel.

Microsoft describes how the device might be used for a virtual poker game, to provide sensation by rotating the wheel when a user touches a rendered card, chip, or table.

"As the user slides along one of these surfaces, the wheel moves underneath the finger to render shear forces and motion," the company explains.

The code and cloud biz has also developed a scheme called Haptic Links to facilitate the simulation of two-handed objects using separate but linked controllers. The system allows a pair of VR controllers to serve, for example, as a virtual bow and arrow simulation by providing varied force feedback for the bow and bow string.

Finally, Microsoft researchers have come up with a Canetroller, to allow people with limited or no vision to navigate virtual spaces through tactile feedback.

The company researchers say their Canetroller allows for new types of cane-based mobility training in which people can practice navigation prior to trying those skills out in a real-world setting. They also see it as a way to make VR gaming and entertainment more accessible to those who cannot experience a simulation visually. ®

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