Thanks to the proliferation of affordable, high-quality headsets, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) are finally taking off. With products like the Meta Quest 2 headset on the market for around $400, VR technology is now available to many consumers. However, VR headsets deal with only two senses: sight and hearing. The industry has desperately sought haptic feedback technology to stimulate the sense of touch Researchers from the City University of Hong Kong have developed a promising system called WeTac may suit this need.
WeTac thin, wearable patches that users can wear on their hands. Patches vary in thickness from 0.22 to 1.00 mm and are mostly transparent. They conform to the shape of the hands when stretched and bent with the skin. It’s a stark contrast to the bulky and cumbersome haptic feedback gloves we’ve seen before. A wrist-worn drive unit provides power and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) connectivity. It weighs only 19.2g, measures 5cm square and is 2.1mm thick. Thin, flexible ribbon cables connect the drive units to the handheld patches.
The wireless skin-integrated electrotactile system consists of two parts: a soft drive unit and a hand patch. (📷: City University of Hong Kong)
Hand patches cover the palms and fingers. Each patch contains 32 electrotactile stimulation pixels, which are computer-controlled dots that can engage the user’s sense of touch. By applying a small electric current, each pixel creates a noticeable sensation. WeTac can be configured to adjust the strength of the electrotactile stimulation, so it can match the sensitivity of the individual and provide different degrees of strength proportional to movements in the virtual world. For example, in VR, hand clapping will produce strong stimulation across all 32 pixels, while tapping a VR button with a fingertip will produce light stimulation through just one pixel.
WeTac has an open application VR game and the metaverse would be mutually beneficial, but would also be useful in industries such as robotics. Equipped with force sensors, the robotic hand can transmit the sense of touch to the operator via WeTac, which will allow fine manipulation that is otherwise difficult to achieve.
WeTac’s creators have yet to commercialize the technology, but it seems almost inevitable. WeTac offers practicality unlike any other wearable haptic technology, and the applications are endless, making the demand very high.