Science of Innovation: Motion Controller for Virtual Reality

Air Date: 02/11/2016
Source:
NBC Learn
Creator:
Kate Snow
Air/Publish Date:
02/11/2016
Event Date:
02/11/2016
Resource Type:
Science Explainer
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2016
Clip Length:
00:04:52

William Provancher of Tactical Haptics has developed a device that combines the sense of touch with technology. Called the "reactive grip," it allows the user to experience the virtual world in a whole new way. "Science of Innovation" is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Science of Innovation -- Motion Controller for Virtual Reality

KATE SNOW reporting:

It is perhaps the most intimate of the human senses, allowing us not just to feel our environment, but also to interact with it. At the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality meet-up in San Mateo, California, a new technology is being showcased that uses the sense of touch to enhance a person's experience with mechanical or computer devices. It's a science called haptics.

WILLIAM PROVANCHER (Tactical Haptics): Haptics is the study of human touch, it has to do with the applications of forces of motions, as well as sensations that come in through your fingertips, through your skin.

SNOW: William Provancher is the founder and CEO of Tactical Haptics. His company has received funding from the National Science Foundation to help develop and bring to market an invention that combines the sense of touch with technology.   

PROVANCHER: That's what we're trying to accomplish, is to have that same nuanced interaction but through a human machine interface.

SNOW: The concept of haptic feedback is not new. Today, we are all familiar with the feel of a vibrating smartphone, or the rumble of a video game controller.  But Provancher is working to improve on these concepts, which is one of the key steps to the innovation process.

PROVANCHER: I’ve always been kind of a maker type. I see things. I want to make them.  And improving human interfaces was one of these big challenges that I thought I can make an impact on.

SNOW: One of the haptic devices designed by Provancher is called the reactive grip, a handheld controller that adds the sense of touch to virtual reality, giving the user a more lifelike experience.

Provancher's controller utilizes two key elements of haptic feedback: the kinesthetic and the tactile. Kinesthetic force comes from muscle movement; while the tactile sense comes from sensations felt on the skin, like vibrations or pressure.

PROVANCHER: what's special about our device is that it's giving you tactile sensation that's mimicking what you'd feel during a kinesthetic interaction. So it's creating this illusion of force feedback.

SNOW: Provancher's controller has sliding bars that run alongside the length of the handle that track the motion of the hands as they interact with a computer simulation.  When the user does something in a computer simulation like pull or lift an object, the device calculates the physical forces at work. This turns it into feedback on the sliding bars, which the user then experiences through his or her hands.  So whether it's shooting a bow and arrow, catching a fish and reeling it in, or stretching out an object, the reactive grip makes it feel like the action is real. These devices aren't just for gameplay. Provancher has been granted several patents by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for inventions such as this steering wheel that senses pressure from the fingertips to indicate where to turn. And for another device that gives a person directions through handheld feedback.

PROVANCHER: Really, one of the focuses that I was trying to do is figure out how we get subtle navigation adjustment of direction, these subtle things that you can do via touch when you're interacting with another person but is really hard to do with a machine.

SNOW: Provancher hopes this haptic technology could one day be used by doctors to perform surgery remotely, by astronauts who need to repair satellites from inside their spacecraft, or by patients undergoing physical therapy.

PROVANCHER: What I get really excited about is having an idea that I think can be applied to a situation that can be a huge improvement to that.  And that's what really drives me to invent.

SNOW: Inventions that improve upon haptic technology, giving Provancher and his team the potential to improve our lives through advances that bring the real and virtual worlds closer together.   

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