How Haptic Feedback in VR Could Revolutionize Architectural Designs of the Future

Architectural design as a practice has evolved rapidly over the past century. The era of computer-aided architectural drafting and detailing (CAD) began in the 1970s and over the past four decades these computer-aided drafting and detailing services have evolved rapidly in both power and sophistication.


The constant when it comes to CAD is that the design tools are getting progressively more complex and robust, enabling architects to automate design tasks and improve on collaboration and presentation. The result has been greater productivity, fewer miscalculations, more creativity, and buildings that are not only structurally sound but which meet clients’ specifications and expectations. 


We’ve spoken before about the improvements technologies like VR, AR, and MR can make in the presentation of architectural designs, but today we consider the benefits of adding another dimension to the digital reality: tactile sensation delivered via haptic feedback.


The Potential for Haptic Feedback in Future Architectural Projects


Immersive reality will for the next few years be based purely on the visual experience. That is, you will hire the VR tech who will translate your complex architectural drawings and models into an immersive VR experience which can subsequently be viewed with a virtual reality headset. However, this is still a purely visual experience. It cannot be touched or felt. 


For the short term, this might suffice. A well done immersive rendering of architectural designs and models will allow architects to “place” their clients inside the virtual reality environment where they can experience the building in a more meaningful and interactive manner even before the construction is commended or completed. It gives them an actual look and feel of the building to scale and they are able to more effectively grasp its spatial qualities, ask the right questions and also understand the opportunities and complexities presented by the design. This immersive experience can strengthen the quality of the final product in ways that a non-interactive design might not. 


The need for even more precise rendering of the building’s spatial qualities will drive architects to eventually embrace haptic feedback in the virtual reality presentation of their projects. Again, this might seem like a distant dream, but there already exist some promising breakthroughs on this frontier. This suggests we are not too far away from an almost surreal architectural design and prototyping experience where both the architect and clients will be able to walk into virtual buildings and even feel the texture of the flooring, walls, furniture and other surfaces years before the project is even physically developed. 


For architects, incorporating haptic feedback in virtual reality designs could give them a competitive edge in the industry. For clients, it creates certainty in the design and some realism that can lead to quick decision-making. Clients will be able to more intuitively perceive designs if they can see and touch it at full scale. It might seem like overkill but we see a future where clients will be even more discerning and the need for such an experience will emerge. 


Some of the haptic feedback innovations that are already showing some promise include the following:


New Artificial Skin Haptic Feedback


Some of the innovations that pass for virtual reality haptic feedback mechanisms have been impractical monstrosities. From an innovation standpoint, they represent major technological breakthroughs but they will still need some aggressive miniaturizing and refining for them to be even feasible for use in VR environments. 


When we think of some futuristic haptic feedback mechanism that allows us to seamlessly and comfortably navigate our way around the virtual worlds, we imagine something like this: feedback delivered through artificial skin.


This artificial haptic skin consists of silicone and electrodes and utilizes a sophisticated self-sensing mechanism that allows it to instantaneously adapt to the movements of the wearer. Developed by scientists at the EPFL’s reconfigurable robotics lab, it relies on a system actuators and soft sensors that make it possible for it to conform to the actual shape of the wearer’s wrist; thereby delivering feedback in the form of pressure and vibrations. 


Its strain sensors will continuously measure the skin deformation when a user touches a virtual object and then transmits corresponding haptic feedback that can be adjusted to create a realistic sense of touch. 


Part of the membrane layer is made of soft pneumatic actuators that can inflate when air is pumped into them. Soft electrodes in the haptic skin device measure skin deformation and sends this feedback to a microcontroller. The technology has already undergone some initial successful tests and is being refined further. In the future, such a technology could be incorporated in virtual models to transmit haptic feedback for various types of interior surfaces in immersive architectural prototypes. 




Facebook’s Wristband Haptic Prototype


Facebook Reality Labs worked in collaboration with a Rice University PHD intern to develop a new haptic device called Tasbi that is worn on both wrists. Tasbi uses vibrations and squeezing to mimic haptic feedback for virtual objects.  The wristbands include “tactors” with individual linear actuators that enable wearers to achieve a more precise control of the vibrations. It is able to send different types of haptic feedback to both of the wearer’s hands. 


The Facebook haptic prototype is hands-free and relatively light and compact and represents what future haptic feedback devices could be. 


Sony’s Haptic Gloves for PSVR


In May of this year, Sony filed a patent for new haptic gloves for PSVR that will enable users to feel shapes and textures of virtual objects. The Sony haptic device will also allow users to feel the pressure that they apply on objects, movements to objects along with proximity to other objects. 


These dynamic haptic gloves will be able to convey both the sense of touch and movements for the objects inside the virtual environments. The Sony haptic gloves will also be equipped with cameras that will detect the position of the gloves and head-mounted displays in the real-world environment.





Microsoft’s TORC Controllers


Microsoft’s Touch Rigid Controller (TORC) is a sophisticated haptic feedback technology capable of delivering both dexterity and a high degree of compliance perception for objects inside a virtual reality environment. 


The TORC manipulates the brain’s susceptibility to dynamic visuotactile simulation. Unlike other haptic feedback systems that actually generate the haptic force or pressure feedback, TORC does it by “fooling” the brain through visual stimuli and haptic feedback to perceive certain sensations. It sounds almost metaphysical. 


How can the brain be “deceived” to feel a sense of touch? According to Microsoft, the TORC haptic feedback renders haptic sensations which are capable of mimicking the elasticity of squeezed objects. 




HaptX Gloves 


HaptX develops gloves that provide users with a realistic sensory stimulation along with natural interaction with virtual reality. The company provides industrial-grade haptic technology with feedback that feels almost like the real thing. It uses its patented microfluidic technology which allows wearers to feel objects with their fingertips or feel resistance when they act against a virtual object. It works through a combination of powerful force feedback mechanism, more detailed tactile feedback, and precise motion tracking,  making it particularly ideal for enterprise applications. 


A Marriage of VR, Haptic Feedback and Architectural Design


Further down the road, architects will be able to use a combination of architectural design solutions, virtual simulation design, immersive reality design and haptic interface design to deliver very realistic and touchable renderings of their architectural designs and models.


With haptics in architectural design, it will be possible to feel the surfaces and objects in the virtual architectural models. This will allow both architects and clients to make more informed decisions on the surfaces, materials, furniture and other aspects of the building design thereby leading to a high degree of accuracy and efficiency in the output. 


It sounds fanciful today, but consider this: half a century ago a drafter would have considered it impossible that a computer could aid them in the design process. We’re here to help you consider what the next 50 years could look like for architectural rendering.