Every day, we get closer and closer to Minority Report-level tech. We’ve got touchscreen devices in our pockets. We can 3D print body parts. Quantum computing is a thing now. But the most exciting development of all — at least for now — might just be the promise of actually feeling things realistically in virtual reality.
The advance comes in the form of a silicon “skin” less than 500 nanometers thick, equipped with electrodes and pneumatic actuators. This second skin uses the actuators to mimic realistic sensations. This isn’t haptic feedback; these are tiny, carefully controlled vibrations that can exert up to 1 Newton of force (about as much as the weight of an apple in the palm of your hand). That means you can touch things, and things can touch you back, and it will feel pretty real.
It won’t be 100% like the real thing, of course. You’d be able to feel the pressure of your hand against a wall, for example, but you wouldn’t meet resistance when continuing to push forward. That’s just one drawback (and an understandable one) in what’s likely to become a game changer for virtual reality experiences.
See, we already have VR suits, but those operate on aforementioned haptic feedback and — while futuristic-looking — are a bit bulky. Scientists are already discussing a full suit made of this super-thin, super-soft material, which would feel like you’re wearing… well, nothing at all. That means a much more immersive experience, and less standing between you and whatever you’re interacting with in virtual reality.
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This, of course, lends itself to one primary use. We’re all thinking it. That’s right: horror games.
Horror games are improving in leaps and bounds when it comes to finding ways to make you feel completely unsafe in your own living room. From taking advantage of your fancy surround-sound setup to registering even the tiniest movement through your controller so you have to hold perfectly still as monsters roam nearby, the immersiveness is only getting better.
That single Newton of force may not seem like much, but it’s just the right amount of pressure for the feeling of a hand grabbing your arm or something brushing past you. Imagine playing the latest Resident Evil game and feeling something grab your foot out of nowhere. Or a new Five Nights at Freddy’s and… okay, you probably wouldn’t actually want to feel one of those animatronics biting you. But you get the idea.
Like pretty much all high-end technology, it’s going to be a while until average people get their hands on it. Once it’s done being developed, the first port of call will probably be rehabilitation and other medical uses. But once it finally makes its way to us, it’s likely to completely change the way we interact with virtual and augmented spaces. If nothing else, it’ll make for some interesting and incredibly upsetting horror experiences.