The new Microsoft has learned to make money again by investing in cloud technologies and going after the enterprise market. Great. Good. Fine. But forgive me a little for preferring the other Microsoft. The one that attracts some of the world’s finest researchers to build crazy things it can never possibly monetize, or will fail hilariously when it tries.
That’s my favorite Microsoft. And that Microsoft just released a series of wild, haptic motion controllers that solve the problem of not being able to touch objects in AR and VR worlds. They are technically research projects that aren’t coming to market–rather, they’re experimental prototypes that each solve this issue in a new way–but you’ve just got to see them all the same.
Leading the pack is a controller called–wait for it–The Claw. Yes! That’s the real name! It’s essentially a grippable controller that you hold like a gun, and it lets you pick up and squeeze virtual objects. You can even use it to run your finger over pixels to feel their shape and texture. How does it work? A motorized arm can tweak the resistance between your index finger and the rest of your hand, which can give you the feeling of squeezing anything ranging from a hard block of wood to a soft sponge. A small coil under your finger can vibrate to simulate various textures, too.
Microsoft also showed off a two-handed controller called Haptic Links, which uses a similar motorized resistance model to simulate playing a trombone or pulling a bow and arrow.
Meanwhile, a third controller known as the Haptic Revolver fools your senses in the most primitive way possible: It’s a wheel that spins various textures, like plastic or carpet, to land under the tip of your finger in coordination with whatever you touch in the virtual world. In other words, if you’re about to touch marble, the wheel will literally spin a tiny swatch of wood under your finger, right in time.
But perhaps the wildest–and most inspiring–of all these prototypes is the Canetroller. It’s literally a cane for people who are blind to navigate life-sized AR and VR worlds. Users can sweep the cane around, just like they would in the physical world, and it will stop in midair when it strikes an object. It also vibrates with thunks and scrapes, and it projects the proper sounds of tapping on different materials like metal or concrete in real space. At first glance, the Canetroller may seem like a somewhat self-defeating academic exercise. Why make a tool for people who can’t see to walk around imaginary worlds? But in fact, if AR and VR take off as projected, something like the Canetroller could be akin to the closed captioning we have on our television sets–an absolute necessity for much of the population to consume a ubiquitous form of media.
So will all, or even any of these strange, robotic contraptions eventually become the standard way we reach out and touch the virtual objects of AR and VR worlds? Maybe! But probably not! That’s okay, though. Because there are ideas here that may one day translate to a more polished, simplified tool–the perfect, haptic controller for a future in which pixels are every bit as common as objects.