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WSU student puts people in touch with virtual reality

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By Michael Andersen
The Columbian
Published:
  • Randy Bullion demonstrates a glove that he helped develop that simulates touch in a virtual environment at Washington State University at Vancouver.

    Zachary Kaufman / The Columbian

    Randy Bullion demonstrates a glove that he helped develop that simulates touch in a virtual environment at Washington State University at Vancouver.

VANCOUVER, Wash. -- This is how the future begins: with Randy Bullion of La Center sitting in a white-walled lab, his right hand extended, grabbing at nothing.
The interesting thing here isn't the computer program that's tracking his movements and projecting an artificial world into the visor he's wearing. Virtual reality is old news.
The thing to notice here is the $4,000 metal glove draped over Bullion's forearm. It's his master's thesis, and it's one step in associate professor Hakan Gurocak's big plan to put Washington State University Vancouver's fledgling robotics lab on the map.
Gurocak doesn't just want to plug people into imaginary worlds. He wants to help design the components that will give people the sensation that imaginary worlds are real.
"The goal here is to come up with a computer interface that is natural," Gurocak said. "You would feel like you are not wearing anything."
At the moment, nobody has to remind Bullion, 36, that his little world is imaginary.
The young engineer is squinting into his video goggles, repeatedly squeezing the mechanical fingers on his 2.2-pound glove, struggling to pick up a virtual ball and toss it into a virtual box.
"Am I even close to it?" he asks.
Nobody said the future would come easy. When Gurocak's robotics team brought in volunteers this fall to run the ball-and-box program unassisted, it took them an average of two minutes each.
That's where Bullion's glove comes in. Send the right electric current through the contraption, and each 16-piece metal finger will lock in place.
Time that lockup to the moment your hand closes around an imaginary ball, and you're in business.
"When you reach out in the virtual environment and grab the virtual object, you feel like it is actually in your hand," said Gurocak.
Using Bullion's design, the average volunteer could do the task in 40 seconds.
It's a very early prototype, but Gurocak loves to rattle off possible applications.
He imagines a medical student, learning what an operation feels like without picking up a real scalpel. An astronaut, directing a robotic hand to tighten a screw outside a space station without needing to step into the vacuum himself. An engineer, sitting at her desk and slipping on a pair of high-tech sunglasses and an advanced version of Bullion's glove so she could feel the heft and shape of a machine part she'd just designed on her computer.
"We could eliminate the expense of prototyping stuff," said Gurocak, who is chairman of the WSU at Vancouver's engineering and computer science department. "That would be an immediate impact."
Gurocak and his graduate engineering students have been chasing various models of this virtual-reality glove, known as a haptic interface, for five years now.
Their initial funding dried up, but Gurocak has kept the small program going in-house, hoping to eventually draw attention. Last month, Bullion showed off his glove at an international engineers conference in Seattle.
"This is a project with long-term goals," Gurocak said.
Because a truly convincing virtual-reality glove might need to use hundreds of pressure points, the trick is to find the smallest, lightest way to generate that pressure.
Embedded behind the wrist of Bullion's glove are three inch-wide drums of magnetic fluid, a gray goo used in race cars that sells for $12 an ounce. Because the gel is packed with microscopic shards of iron, the shift of a magnetic field can turn its consistency from motor oil to peanut butter in an instant.
This semester, another grad student is experimenting with tiny motors.
Gurocak guesses the technology he's dreaming of is 20 years away.
If the university can find $50,000 to $100,000 over the next five years, Gurocak said it could accelerate upgrades to the glove design and buy the high-end video software needed to really put it to the test.
Already, he says, the world yearns for new ways to wed human bodies with electronics.
"We are surrounded by computers in every place we go, in everything we do," Gurocak said. "If we had a better way of interacting with computers, I think that would open up many, many possibilities."
Story tags » Technology (general)

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