Long before Facebook officially renamed itself Meta—a signal to the world that it was getting more serious about virtual and augmented reality technologies—the company had started to reveal key parts of its envisioned metaverse.
Its Meta Quest 2 (née Oculus Quest 2) was already considered one of the best wireless VR headsets available. More recently, executives from Meta Reality Labs, the company’s research and development arm, revealed a wrist wearable that translates electrical motor nerve signals into digital commands and an upcoming “Project Cambria” headset that’s supposed to support realistic avatars and advanced eye-tracking.
Now, the controversy-riddled social media company—because it is still a social media company, and it is still controversial—is revealing another one of these future-VR prototypes. This time it’s a haptic glove designed to give the wearer sensations that mimic the weight and feel of real objects when they are handled in virtual space. Slip on this glove, and you can be convinced you’re holding the real thing (or something close to it), even when the object is entirely digital.
Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Meta Reality Labs, and Sean Keller, director of research science at the Labs, say the haptic glove has been in the works for several years and is still nowhere close to being released to the public. But it’s another part of the big AR/VR picture for Meta, one where sight and sound and touch fuse together to make an augmented digital world more realistic.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out how to give you rich feedback so that your hands become fully useful,” Abrash says. “This is a key piece and one of the hardest, long-term riskiest pieces, but once this is in place, then VR can really become an environment in which almost anything is possible that you are effectively capable of doing.”
The problem Meta is trying to solve is a real one in VR, one that other companies have taken stabs at as well. Slip on a VR headset, and you’re cut off from the real world. Slip on a VR headset with inside-out tracking—the term most often used to describe sensors and cameras that capture the environment around you—and moving around in VR becomes more manageable.
But then when you try to use your physical hands to pick up virtual objects, the whole flirtation with VR falls flat again. It suddenly feels disorienting. Controllers, like the ones that ship with Quest 2, are a decent proxy for hands and allow you to at least navigate menus or play games while you’re wearing a full-fledged headset. However, these are mostly input devices and don’t give you the kind of tactile feedback you’d get with your actual hands.
Upstarts like HaptX, SenseGlove, Hi5, and Manus, among others, have shown off gloves that are designed for use with VR headsets and are supposed to capture precise hand-tracking and finger movement data. But Meta’s Reality Labs division has now spent seven years working on this current prototype and has committed to spending at least $10 billion this year alone on its metaverse hardware, software, and apps. (It’s a sad day to be a haptic glove startup.)
Abrash and Keller are also touting Reality Labs’ advancements around microfluidics technology as one of the differentiators in these prototype gloves. Typically, haptic glove systems use a pattern of actuators to simulate the feel of tactile feedback for the wearer. The more actuators on the glove, the more precise and realistic any motion will feel. But if you load up a glove with too many actuators relying on electronic circuitry, you’ll generate enough heat to cook someone’s hand. So Abrash and Keller say they’ve come up with soft actuators and the “world’s first high-speed microfluidic processor,” a chip that controls the glove’s air flow system, which powers the actuators.
This in no way means that Meta’s haptic glove prototype—which is just a prototype—will be the tactile feedback solution every VR skeptic has been waiting for. It may not even be able to replicate every sensation you would get in the “real world.” Keller insists, though, that exact recreation of the real world isn’t necessary to have a natural and intuitive experience in VR.
Abrash concurs, saying that ultimately, realistic AR or VR will take a “multimodal” approach, where a few key senses are being engaged simultaneously. He described a Reality Labs test where he wore a VR headset and had an actuator on his fingertip to mimic what the haptic glove might do. When he ran his finger across a ceramic plate in VR, he could hear the sound of his finger on the imperfect plate and see it in front of him. But part of that simulation was also the sight and sound of his finger moving across the virtual plate. Once sight and sound were removed for him, it just felt like there was a tiny motor buzzing on the end of his finger. Reality, or Meta’s version of it, had been temporarily deactivated; only the disappointing reality remained.
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