Virtual reality feels so real . . . until you try to actually touch something. As soon as your hand reaches out and strikes nothing but air, the illusion is broken.
Shapeshift, a new research project from Stanford University’s SHAPE Lab, aims to solve this problem. It’s an aptly named shapeshifting display built for your hands. By using a series of piston-like pins, it can create shapes and textures that pop up under your fingers in less than a second.
If the project looks familiar, that’s because this actuator pin-based approach to tactile interfaces builds upon research pioneered at MIT Media Lab, which developed a now-famous transforming display called inFORM in 2013. But whereas inFORM was designed to be put in one place like a big computer monitor, Shapeshift is mobile by nature–almost like an oversized desktop mouse that can create textures wherever your hand goes next.
Practically speaking, that means Shapeshift can be built smaller, and cheaper, than inFORM. Its creators believe Shapeshift’s price tag would be on par with consumer electronics, not expensive lab equipment. From cost details shared in the technical research paper, I’m estimating it could be sold for $300.
To use Shapeshift, you place the box on the desk in front of you, then you place your hand on the box. You can wear a VR headset, or just look at a computer monitor while you work. Shapeshift has various tracking systems the team has tested, but essentially, as it moves, it pulls object information from software, and recreates these objects in physical form under your fingers.
So what can it actually do? The demonstration that Stanford filmed is certainly incredible. You can pull it around with your hand to feel objects like cubes and balls. You can also attach omnidirectional robotic wheels on the bottom, so it can actually drive under your hand as you move, enabling you to feel the mountains on topographical maps. It can even simulate the walls of a maze, as your finger passes through it.
On this latter point, researchers found that Shapeshift wasn’t just fun or immersive. The tactile feedback working in concert with visual graphics allowed subjects to solve a maze 24% faster than they could without a Shapeshift, with measurably less frustration and mental load.
For now, Shapeshift still doesn’t necessarily look all that practical. Can you imagine pulling the size equivalent of two mini PCs around your desk all day? But as AR and VR spread and mature, haptic experiments like Stanford’s, MIT’s, or Microsoft’s will pave the way for products that ensure we cannot just see the future, but touch this brave new world, too.