Researchers at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado recently created RoomShift, a haptic and dynamic environment that could be used to support a variety of virtual reality (VR) experiences. This new haptic environment, introduced in a paper published on arXiv and presented at the ACI CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2020 (CHI ’20), uses a team of small robots that can rearrange the furniture inside a room.
“In virtual reality, your experience is usually just visual; you can see objects in VR, but you can’t touch and feel the walls and the furniture, ”Ryo Suzuki, one of the researchers who conducted the study, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, told TechXplore. “This limits the feeling of full immersion in the virtual world. We wanted to make VR more captivating by adding tactile and haptic experiences. ”
Thus, Suzuki and its colleagues set out to explore how users can physically interact with VR environments, not just through their hands (ie using gestures or a controller), but using their whole body. In other words, they wanted to create an environment that would allow users to touch, walk, sit, catch, manipulate and lean on objects in VR, just as they would interact with real-world objects.
Their recent study is based on a number of previous projects in which researchers have explored the potential of integrating robots with visual experiences. This includes the development of ShapeBots, a variety of shape-changing robots that can be used to create visual displays, and LiftTiles, a set of actuator-based building blocks for creating shape-changing interfaces.
“In our previous paper, we encountered two key limitations: one associated with speed (e.g., inflatables are too slow to quickly reconfigure the environment) and the other with the size and stability of robots (e.g., the mechanical structure of changing the shape of robots can break easily under load and may not be able to withstand the people sitting on it), ”said Suzuki. “These trade-offs have been the main problem of previous work, as we have found that inflatable structures are stable but slow, while mechanical structures are fast but not so stable to support heavy weights. After extensive prototypes and several design discussions, we decided to explore a new approach in which, rather than robots directly rendering the environment, it is better to lift, move and place the furniture ”.
The new approach thus allows the furniture inside the room to be rearranged quickly, using items strong enough to support physical interactions involving all parts of the body. Using robots to rearrange chairs, desks, walls and other pieces of furniture, allows the addition of a haptic component for the whole body to VR experiences.
In essence, the robots used by researchers move furniture from a room to recreate the general characteristics of the environment in which a user navigates in VR. This allows users to physically interact with the elements around them (for example, sitting on a chair, leaning against a wall, etc.), making their VR experience even more captivating.
“Uniquely, we can now support haptic interactions on a room scale,” Suzuki said. “Previously, researchers have mainly proposed portable or wearable haptic devices and / or haptic interfaces that use large robots. Instead, RoomShift can simulate large-scale environments, such as walls, surfaces, furniture, and floors, that would be difficult to achieve with existing approaches. ”
You will be able to see your future home from a distance, before buying it, through VR
So far, Suzuki and colleagues have made nine robots and programmed them to coordinate with each other to rearrange the furniture in specific ways. Building the robots was relatively simple and inexpensive, as their main components were a Roomba robotic platform, a metal laundry stand purchased from Target and two linear actuators.
“Only a few existing systems can support haptic environments on a room scale, so our work will open up a set of exciting new applications and opportunities that were previously unexplored,” said Suzuki. “For example, we explored how this system can support architectural application scenarios, such as rendering physical room interiors for virtual real estate tours and collaborative architectural design, two increasingly common application areas for VR.”
In the future, this haptic environment could have many applications. In addition to activating new forms of VR-assisted architectural planning, it could give those who want to buy a house the chance to view properties remotely in an interactive way.
“Virtual real estate tours reduce time and cost compared to on-site viewing, but currently they do not have the physical experience to be able to touch the surfaces,” Suzuki explained. “In terms of architectural design, on the other hand, VR helps communication between architects and clients, where proposed projects can be experienced, discussed and modified before being built.”
Video games will become more attractive through RoomShift VR
RoomShift could also make video games or other forms of VR-based entertainment more attractive. For example, a version of the environment could be introduced in amusement parks, giving visitors the opportunity to experience VR in a whole new way. Moreover, it could be applied in industrial environments, for example, as a tool for designing and testing the appearance of cars, furniture or aircraft.
“We are motivated by the way RoomShift can allow people with various physical abilities to experiment, test and co-design these environments with their bodies,” said Suzuki. “The potential of RoomShift may not be limited to haptic VR applications. We are also interested in exploring how these robots can be deployed in our environment and support everyday life (e.g. redesigning the chairs and desks of a room to transform from a meeting space into a space teacher) “.
So far, researchers have demonstrated, first and foremost, the potential of the haptic environment they have created as a tool for architectural design. However, they hope that other research teams around the world will soon feel inclined to test RoomShift for other applications.