Virtual reality is a huge step forward towards completely immersing the user in a game or in a movie, but for many, visuals and audio alone are not enough. The ability to actually feel what you see and hear is one of the key components in making content even more immersive and some huge companies are working to fill this gap. Disney Research, Carnegie Mellon University, and MIT have recently created a prototype for a VR-compatible jacket with haptic responses.
Officially called a Force Jacket, the wearable is capable of simulating sensations of pressure and force on the user's body, being able to imitate hugs, punches and even the terrifying sensation of having a snake slithering on your skin. In order to do this, the jacket is coated with a number of airbags which inflate and deflate in a controlled fashion simulating force in the desired direction as well as vibrations-generating devices placed in key locations. According to the prototype's specifications, the jacket is made from a repurposed life vest, it houses 26 different airbags located on the arms, front, back and sides, includes adjustable sleeves and weighs approximately five pounds.
The entire thing is software controllable and is programmable through an editor that allows the developer to decide the events that occur along with their timing and also has some more in-depth settings such as the speed, duration or force of both the inflation and deflation of the airbags as well as the intensity and duration of the vibrations. From what I understand, the creators of the Force Jacket are currently working on creating a library of configurations to simulate different feelings on the user's body such as falling rain, motorcycle vibrations, being tapped on the shoulder, the crawling of a bug, being hit with a snowball, dripping slime or even growing muscles like the Hulk does when he gets angry.
According to its developers, the jacket is fully compatible with virtual reality technology and their hope is that one day this kind of jacket will become as common to VR headsets as keyboards are to PC. Furthermore, there's no reason not to use the same technology on a pair of pants or sneakers and simulate physical experiences on the user's entire body. However, by the creators' own admission, the Force Jacket still has a long way to go until we can even talk about a consumer-grade version. The device is pretty heavy so a lighter and more compact version is definitely a must; another big problem is the tubing necessary to inflate and deflate the airbags, which drastically decreases the user's mobility and is a huge impediment when it comes to 360-degree experiences.
Of course, this isn't the first time someone tries to repurpose a jacket into an entertainment suite, but the Force Jacket is one of the first to try to integrate it with virtual reality. If you remember, just a couple of years ago we saw a body suit made by MadRat Games, which would react to various inputs and encourage kids to play outside.