Device costing less than $50 to make lets you ‘feel’ objects in VR

28 Apr 2020

Image: © Damir Khabirov/

To bring the world of virtual reality one step closer to our own, researchers have created a new haptic device that lets users ‘feel’ objects.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a device that aims to take virtual reality (VR) systems to a new level. Using multiple strings attached to the hand and fingers of someone in VR, they said it is possible to simulate the feel of obstacles and heavy objects.

Previous commercial attempts to create haptic feedback in VR have relied on vibrations in the hand controllers, which leave much to be desired, the researchers said.

Future Human

By locking the strings when the user’s hand is near a virtual wall, the device can replicate the feeling of touching the obstacle. Likewise, the string mechanism allows the user to feel the contours of a virtual structure or even give a high five to a virtual character.

One of its developers, Cathy Fang, said that the low-cost, low-power, shoulder-mounted device takes advantage of spring-loaded strings to reduce weight.

The entire device weighs less than 300g and could be mass produced at an estimated cost of less than $50, according to the researchers.

Lighter and quieter

While previous research also used strings to create haptic feedback in virtual worlds, it typically used motors to control the strings. By removing motors, the system is both lighter and less disruptive for the user attempting to explore a virtual world.

This breakthrough uses spring-loaded retractors, similar to those seen in key chains or ID badges. A ratchet mechanism was added so that it can be rapidly locked with an electrically controlled latch.

Only a small amount of electrical power is needed to engage the latch, meaning it can be run on battery power. After much experimentation, the researchers found the most efficient way was to attach a string to each fingertip as well as one to the palm and one to the wrist.

When the system senses that a user’s hand is in proximity to a virtual wall or other obstacle, the ratchets are engaged in a sequence suited to those virtual objects. The latches disengage when the person withdraws their hand.

Fang said the system would be suitable for VR games and experiences such as a virtual maze or when visiting a virtual museum.

“You might also use it to shop in a furniture store,” she added.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic