Virtual reality usually doesn’t feel particularly real, mostly because you can’t touch or feel anything in the virtual world in front of you. Engineers have been hard at work on the problem, dreaming up full-body suits, gloves, arm bands, and even wearables that use electric muscle stimulation to trick your muscles into thinking you’re touching real objects in virtual space. It’s even more challenging to simulate the sensation of being underwater, but that hasn’t stopped some researchers from prototyping a new haptic device, called LiquidMask, that does just that—at least on your face.
Designed by interaction design students at the National Taipei University of Technology, LiquidMask sits on the user’s face underneath a bulky VR headset, through which users can see into a virtual world. While it doesn’t make the user’s skin wet, the device does attempt to re-create the feeling of water moving past your face by pumping liquid around the mask. LiquidMask also can change the temperature of the liquid inside to provide the feeling of coolness or heat.
LiquidMask was on display last week at the 2019 SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, the annual event focused on graphics, gaming, and emerging technology. Visitors could try out LiquidMask while navigating an underwater scuba-diving VR experience, where the liquid in the mask would get colder and colder as they descended further down. Meanwhile, the amount of liquid inside the mask would increase to help represent the growing pressure.
“Shoals of fish swim pass by… and the head can feel the pumping, experiencing the sense of real diving,” write the researchers in their paper. “The addition of the haptic feedback enhances the immersive experience and provides a more realistic scene.”
Because the mask primarily focuses on temperature sensations, it could also feasibly be used for experiences outside the water as well, like in outdoor games where temperature is a key component—imagine virtually climbing Mount Everest and feeling the cold on your face.
There’s a serious downside to the technology, though: it’s not exactly portable. The mask that goes on your face plugs into a setup inside a briefcase that includes two one-liter tanks of water and several heating and cooling mechanisms called peltiers. Then again, most VR isn’t particularly mobile either—something that hasn’t stopped people who are looking for more intense immersive experiences through haptic devices, even if it prevents the technology from going more mainstream.