Puffed-up pouches could bring haptic feedback tech to our clothing

Haptic feedback systems, in which users receive tactile signals on their body, definitely show a lot of promise … but they can be electronically complex. An experimental new setup makes things simpler, by incorporating pneumatic pouches into wearable sleeves.

In most haptic feedback systems, which are utilized in fields such as virtual reality, multiple electric actuators are used to deliver tactile sensations to different parts of a person’s body. While such systems are OK for use in labs or gaming environments, their power and hardware requirements tend to make them too bulky for out-and-about real-world usage.

In an effort to simplify the technology, Rice University’s Prof. Daniel Preston, Prof. Marcia O’Malley and mechanical engineering PhD student Barclay Jumet turned to carbon dioxide.

More specifically, they developed a wearable system in which a compact fluidic controller releases CO2 from a small belt-mounted tank into pouches in two heat-sealed connected sleeves. Each sleeve incorporates six of the pouches, which are about the size of a US 25-cent coin.

Acting in response to wirelessly relayed commands, the controller selectively inflates different combinations of the pouches with varying force and frequency.

In a test of the system, this caused the wearer to feel different tapping sequences on their forearms, which guided them to walk forward, backward, left or right along a 1-mile (1.6-km) stretch of the streets of Houston. In another test, a user was guided to walk in the pattern of invisible 50-meter (164-ft)-long Tetris pieces in an open field.

According to Jumet, the setup required only four electronic inputs instead of the 12 that would have otherwise been needed.

“In the future, this technology could be directly integrated with navigational systems, so that the very textiles making up one’s clothing can tell users which way to go without taxing their already overloaded visual and auditory senses — for instance by needing to consult a map or listen to a virtual assistant,” he said.

Other possible uses for the technology include obstacle avoidance for the blind, lip-reading cues for the deaf, and the sensation of touch via prosthetic limbs for amputees.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Device. There’s more information in the following video.

Smart fabrics’ informed touch can tell you where to go

Sources: Rice University, Cell Press via EurekAlert

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