Humans are visual beings. We tend to learn a lot more if the information is presented visually rather than in a written or oral form. That’s why most of us would rather watch a YouTube tutorial for troubleshooting our washing machines or toasters instead of reading the user manual. This explains the scope of utility for immersive technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).

With stores and businesses shutting down due to the lockdown, domains like retail and manufacturing have been hit hard and the effects of this pandemic will exist for a long time. Customers’ focus is shifting towards e-commerce due to safety concerns and convenience.

In the post-pandemic world, there might be restrictions on physical interactions, but we can be digitally connected. Extended Reality (XR) will play a huge role in ensuring an immersive experience for the users when it comes to shopping, events, workplaces, etc.

The recent AR launch event for OnePlus’s new phone Nord and the revelation of Jio Glass have proven that the focus is shifting from conventional technologies towards immersive technologies like XR. A lot of businesses have already started focusing on including XR to attract and retain their customer base.

However, mainstream Extended Reality (XR) is just limited to Visual and Acoustic experiences for now. To provide a completely immersive experience, there is a need to focus on other important sensory feedback like the perception of touch. Users still can’t feel the fabric of apparels they like, or the texture of furniture pieces they want to buy. Haptics will pave the way for a more real-life like user experience by bringing in the sense of touch through tactile feedback.
But before we dive deep, let’s have a brief understanding of XR and Haptics.

What is XR?

You might have heard of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, but what is Extended Reality?

Extended Reality is an umbrella term for all immersive realities. All kinds of realities that extend our experience by combining the physical and digital world fall under Extended Reality or XR.

Source: https://www.tvrlp.com/ultimate-extended-reality-glossary/

We have Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mixed Reality available to us as of now, and all of these come under XR. Let’s understand each of these:

  • Virtual Reality: VR is a technology in which the user gets immersed in a virtual environment and is disconnected from the actual physical world. You need headsets or HMDs (head-mounted display) to experience VR.
  • Augmented Reality: AR is a technology that augments digital information (like- images, 3D models, videos, etc.) on top of the physical world. You can experience AR on smartphones without the need for any additional hardware. Snapchat filters, games like Pokemon Go, etc. are a few examples of AR.
  • Mixed Reality: This is a combination of both AR and VR. Users can interact with virtual objects in MR. There’s a need for specialized headsets like HoloLens, Magic Leap One to experience MR.

What is Haptic Technology?

The simulation of the sense of touch using force or vibrations is called Haptic Technology or Haptics. Haptics majorly aims to facilitate interactions through tactile feedback.

Haptic technology is not something new, we all might have experienced it without knowing it. Some of the examples of Haptics would be the tactile feedback vibrations while touching a smartphone screen. PlayStation Controllers utilize vibrations to enable Haptics using Sony’s DualShock technology. iPhone 3D Touch System emulates the sense of clicking a button without the presence of a physical button by using vibrations as well.

With full-blown Haptic solutions like the Teslasuit and VRgluv already in development, let’s look at some domains that will be leveraged by Haptic enabled XR:

Lifesciences and Healthcare:

XR+Haptics can be used to plan out a surgical operation before performing it. VR will provide a more immersive understanding of the issue, and Haptics can be used to differentiate between different organs, bones, etc.

A similar approach can also be used to train the medical staff or to get assistance from anywhere across the globe in real-time in case of any medical complication.

Companies like GoTouchVR, FundamentalVR, etc. have already developed solutions using XR and Haptics to assist medical professionals in various areas.

Automotive and Manufacturing:

XR is already being used by a lot of automotive and manufacturing firms in the form of XR user manuals for sales and marketing, product launches, etc. Including Haptics will provide more depth to the user experience. A user can feel the texture of the interiors of the car before buying it, without having to visit a showroom. Automotive giants like BMW provide XR based training, servicing and installation manuals to assist users and field technicians as well.

Haptics with XR can also be used to provide technical training to new employees before they start working on the shop floor. This will ensure that the safety of the staff is not compromised, and they possess the required skills when they start doing their job. XR and Haptics based assistance will also lead to faster resolutions of issues during the manufacturing process.

Retail:

With XR, customers can walk around a 3D simulated virtual store without being physically present there. There are AR apps to try out products like eyewear, cosmetics, furniture, etc. in real-time, in the comfort of the user’s home before they decide to place an order. Adding in Haptics will elevate the shopping experience significantly. Users will be able to feel the texture of the products they want which will help them narrow down their choices.

The inclusion of Haptics will also aid retailers. A significant amount of time and cost in retail logistics may be wasted because of product returns and exchanges as the user might not have liked them. If the customers can experience the products in an immersive visual form, they’ll have a better idea of what to expect. This will bring down the returns and exchange percentages as well.

Events, Exhibitions, Product Launches:

The event industry was probably the first one to get hit with the onset of Covid-19. It has been the hardest hit as well. Recurring lockdowns and isolation are taking a toll on people’s mental health. Music concerts, product launches, and other events are being organized on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, but it still doesn’t provide the same experience as being present with the crowd in real life.

With VR social media apps like AltSpace VR and Mozilla Hubs, adding in Haptics will significantly enhance the feeling of being present in an actual event. Users will be able to interact with others physically through tactile sensations using Haptic wearables like gloves, which will compensate for the lack of social interaction.

Video link to AltspaceVR demo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weOud0b7FvY

Conclusion:

The scope for XR and Haptics as a combined technology in the current world is endless. Human beings are social animals, with the sensation of touch being important for their emotional connection and wellbeing. Haptics feedbacks are also important for mixed realities where humans can interact with the objects. The sensation of touch is considered more reliable and lifelike than vision or hearing while interacting with objects -be it in the real or virtual world. However, XR and Haptics being niche and hardware-dependent, are cost-intensive for commercial purposes as of now. With growing advancement in AI, ML, computer vision and 5G technologies that empower XR, the day is not far when XR + Haptics will be available for everybody at a reasonable cost. It won’t be long before we find ourselves in a completely immersive, virtual world like the one in the movie ‘Ready Player One’.

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Vidhi Rai

Posted by Vidhi Rai

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