The last big hurdle to making virtual worlds (nope, not going to call it the other thing) a truly realistic experience is providing tangible feedback to other senses too, like touch. There’s been considerable research into creating VR controllers that let users touch and feel virtual objects as if they were real, but the SpinOcchio might be the most awkward of them all.
Last year, researchers from the National Taiwan University’s Interactive Graphics (and Multimedia) Laboratory and the National Chengchi University revealed their Hair Touch controller at the 2021 Computer-Human Interaction conference. The bizarre-looking contraption featured a tuft of hair that could be extended and contracted so that when someone tried to pet a virtual cat, or interact with other furry objects in virtual reality, their fingers would actually feel the fur, as far as their brains were concerned.
That was more or less the same motivation for researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s MAKinteract Lab to create the SpinOcchio VR controller. Instead of making virtual fur feel real, the controller is designed to recreate the feeling of slipping something between your fingers. In the researchers’ own words, it’s described as “a handheld haptic controller capable of rendering the thickness and slipping of a virtual object pinched between two fingers.”
To keep this story PG-13, let’s stick with one of the example use cases the researchers suggest for the SpinOcchio controller: virtual pottery. Making bowls, vases, and other ceramics on a potter’s wheel in real life requires the artist to be able to feel the spinning object in their hands in order to make it perfectly cylindrical and stable. Attempting to use a potter’s wheel in virtual reality with a pair of VR joysticks in hand is nowhere near the same experience, but that’s the ultimate goal of VR: to accurately recreate an experience that otherwise may be inaccessible to a user.
To simulate the feeling of skin slip, like when a lump of clay slides through a potter’s hands, the SpinOcchio controller uses spinning discs that can pivot against a user’s fingers. This supposedly creates the physical sensations of an object sliding through fingertips and syncs them with what the user’s virtual hands are doing in a VR world. This is thanks to the spinning discs’ ability to pivot, which allows the controller to also recreate the contours of a curvy object sliding through a user’s fingers. Think of a virtual Coca-Cola bottle, to stick with the researchers’ own examples.
The SpinOcchio controller will officially debut at the 2022 Computer-Human Interaction conference that takes place in late April in New Orleans this year, but you can already access the full research paper now, ‘SpinOcchio: Understanding Haptic-Visual Congruency of Skin-Slip in VR with a Dynamic Grip Controller’ if you want to dive deeper into the researchers’ family-friendly suggested uses for the device. But the promotional video they’ve created tells a different story about why this thing exists.