EUROPE: Universities heighten virtual reality

Researchers from nine European universities are developing more interactive virtual reality technology that goes beyond simple sight and sound and takes users into a world where digital movements and surroundings can actually be felt.

The project is part of the European Union-funded multi-modal project, IMMERSENCE, which has received Euro EUR5.5 million (US$7 million) in funding from the European Union.

Researchers have developed haptic technology that interacts with users, and new techniques to transform real-world objects into virtual reality objects.

"Haptic technology is still in the early stages," said Andreas Schweinberger, coordinator of IMMERSENCE and researcher at Technische Universität München in Germany. "The audiovisual aspects of virtual reality have come a long way in recent years, so adding a sense of touch is the next step."

While these advances will have great benefits for virtual reality game users, researchers say their work can be used for more than just entertainment.

"The research will also help in the development of cognitive robots that are better able to interact with humans," Schweinberger says. These robotic interactions could aid medical staff in treating patients remotely or designers in collaborating virtually through the teleportation of touchable digital plans through the internet, he said.

The project has used "a robotic arm called a PHANTOM that has one contact point," said Schweinberger. It gives users "the sense of touching an object, but you can't pick it up or handle it."

He continued: "We know that the more senses that can be used, the more interaction, the greater the sense of presence. And a stronger sense of presence means the experience is more immersive and realistic."

Researchers at the university have also partnered a real dancer with a pair of virtual reality glasses and a robotic platform in place of a partner. The dancer looked through the glasses and the robot became a real person with whom to dance.

Other participating institutions in the project include Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule in Zürich, Switzerland; the University of Evry Val d'Essonne in France; the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany: Israel's Institute of Technology in Technion: Britain's University of Birmingham; the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya in Barcelona and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, both in Spain; and the University of Pisa in Italy.