Without adding any hardware that actually makes contact with the wearer’s face, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group have modified an off-the-shelf virtual reality headset so that it recreates the sensation of touch in and around a user’s mouth, finally fulfilling virtual reality’s inevitable one true purpose.
Aside from handheld controllers that occasionally vibrate, most consumer-ready virtual reality devices ignore senses like taste, smell, and touch, and instead focus on visuals and sounds. It’s enough to make virtual reality experiences far more compelling than they were decades ago, but not enough to truly fool the brain into thinking that what your eyes are seeing is possibly a real-life experience.
Researchers working to evolve and improve virtual reality hardware have come up with some truly unique hardware and accessories over the years to make virtual reality feel as real as it looks, but none truly reflect where virtual reality is inevitably going like the research being done at Carnegie Mellon University in regards to mouth haptics. You might not be able to reach out and feel realistic fur on a virtual dog just yet, but experiencing the sensation of drinking from a virtual drinking fountain could be just around the corner—in addition to other experiences that don’t require too much imagination.
The researchers upgraded what appears to be a Meta Quest 2 headset with an array of ultrasonic transducers that are all focused on the user’s mouth, and it works without the need for additional accessories, or other hardware set up around the wearer. We’ve seen ultrasonic transducers used to levitate and move around tiny particles by blasting them with powerful sound waves before, but in this application, they create the feeling of touch on the user’s lips, teeth, and even their tongue while their mouth is open.
The transducers can do more than just simulate a gentle touch. By pulsing them in specific patterns, they can recreate the feeling of an object sliding or swiping across the lips, or persistent vibrations, such as the continuous splashing of water when leaning down to sip from a virtual drinking fountain.
The researchers have come up with other custom virtual reality experiences that demonstrate how their mouth haptics hardware can introduce more realism, including a hike through a spooky forest where spider webs can be felt across the face, a race where the user can feel the wind in their face, and even virtual eating experiences where food and drinks can be felt inside the mouth. But if and when someone runs with this idea and commercializes the mouth haptics hardware, we’re undoubtedly going to see the world’s first virtual reality kissing booth realized, among other experiences the researchers are probably wisely tip-toeing around.