Bioengineers from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL),  in collaboration with colleagues from the ETH of Zurich and Microcity (the research center in Neuchâtel dedicated to innovation), have developed an ultrathin glove that let users “touch” objects created through virtual reality, with a very realistic sensation (as if those objects actually existed) and an unprecedented level of precision. “We wanted to develop a lightweight device that – unlike existing virtual-reality gloves – didn’t require a bulky exoskeleton, pumps or very thick cables,” says Herbert Shea, head of EPFL’s Soft Transducers Laboratory (LMTS).

The new gloves, called DextrES, could be used not only by gamers, but also in the field of medicine (such as, for training aspiring surgeons). For now, the gloves are powered by a very thin electrical cable, but could run on a small battery instead, due to the low power requirement, allowing for extreme freedom of movement.

Researchers recently presented the features of the DextrES glove at the Symposium of User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) organized in Berlin by the Association for Computing Machinery, explaining that each finger of the glove (less than 2 millimeters thick and with a weight of only eight grams) is made of nylon lined with thin metal strips. These metal strips are separated by an ultrathin insulator, and when the user’s fingers come into contact with a virtual object, a weak electrical current creates a voltage difference between the strips, causing them to stick to one another, as a result of the electrostatic charge produced. This produces a braking force that blocks the movement of the fingers and results in a very firm grip (creating a feeling very similar to that of touching a real object). When, on the other hand,  the glove moves away from the virtual object (and the voltage is hence removed), the metal strips glide smoothly and  the user can once again move his/her fingers freely.

“The human sensory system is highly developed and highly complex”, says Otmar Hilliges, head of the Advanced Interactive Technologies Lab at ETH Zurich, “We have many different kinds of receptors at a very high density in the joints of our fingers and embedded in the skin. As a result, rendering realistic feedback when interacting with virtual objects is a very demanding problem and is currently unsolved. Our work goes one step in this direction, focusing particularly on kinesthetic feedback (editor’s note: i.e. on the perception of movement)”.

The glove has been successfully tested on a group of volunteers in Zurich, but further studies must be carried out in order to add and “refine” new functions.