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Circuit Breaker

Let this mechanical hand centipede tell you how the shadow world feels

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Advanced virtual reality haptics — technology that lets you realistically feel like you’re touching digital objects — lags behind headsets and motion controllers, in terms of both mainstream development and consumer adoption. This may be partly because delivering these subtle sensations requires an intimate connection with our bodies, and the one-size-fits-all nature of wearable technology sometimes makes that difficult. It may also be because one of our best options currently involves strapping your hands into a product that looks like a dissected mechanical centipede, or some other skittering thing with too many legs.

This is Dexmo, a force-feedback exoskeleton built by VR startup Dexta Robotics. Road to VR has a good rundown of how the technology works and what it could be used for — essentially, it applies force to your fingers when you manipulate a virtual object, imitating the pushback you’d get from its real-world counterpart. The device could theoretically be paired with any virtual or augmented reality headset, or an ordinary flat screen, for anything from playing a video game to performing remote surgery.

We’ve never tried the exoskeleton, but it promises to realistically differentiate between various kinds of materials, so picking up a rubber duck would feel different from, say, grabbing a rock. Because it can actually constrain the motion of your hand, it should be better at imitating solid objects than haptic systems based on sophisticated vibration or heat, although those provide their own benefits. And Dexta has been polishing it for nearly three years now, although there’s still no consumer version planned. As VR accessories go, it’s certainly one of the more interesting ones.

On the flip side, I would like to remind you that wearing Dexmo means being physically controlled by a futuristic arthropod.

I mean, look at this prototype:

via Road to VR

The latest version, admittedly, looks less insectoid. But the vibe I’m getting is "prehistoric crustacean crossed with headcrab zombie claws," which is not necessarily an improvement.

In all seriousness, the force feedback is probably relatively subtle — your hands won’t be taking on a life of their own any time soon. But this render would still make a great horror movie poster:

Dexta is currently partnering with VR developers who could put Dexmo to good use. For now, I will simply look forward to the day when I can simulate reality with my own personal hand-centipede.