Microsoft Research presented a prototype VR controller which can dynamically adapt its shape.
Called ‘X-Rings’, the device uses a stack of four motor-driven expandable rings with capacitive sensors to simulate grasping and even deforming virtual objects.
Like with the Valve Index controllers, X-Rings is strapped to your hand allowing you to let go and naturally throw. But instead of grabbing the same handle, X-Rings adapts its width with the four rings.
Since the ring plates have capacitive sensors and the motors have current sensors, X-Rings knows which plates your fingers are or aren’t touching, and the force they’re applying. Combining this sensing with the motors enables advanced interactions such as breaking virtual glass or ceramics by squeezing too hard.
Changing shape, which the researchers refer to as “shape rendering”, takes less than 100 milliseconds (9 frames at 90 Hz).
To assess the effectiveness of X-Rings, Microsoft conducted user testing. Users were shown six virtual objects out of reach. They were then instructed to grasp the device with no visual cue and guess which object it was supposed to be simulating. The researchers say the result was an 80% success rate.
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has showed off advanced VR controller prototypes. In 2019 it showed off TORC (TOuch Rigid Controller), designed to simulate grabbing small objects with your thumb & first two fingers. Last year it showed PIVOT which provides a grasping surface only when needed, leaving your hand completely unencumbered when not holding a virtual object.
Microsoft’s VR controller research portfolio is growing more & more impressive, but will any of this ship in products? The company has repeatedly played down chances of an Xbox VR headset any time soon, even as recently as July. The Windows VR headsets it partnered with six PC manufacturers on make up less than 6% of SteamVR, and only HP remains as an active partner. Still, the VR market is in its early days, and Microsoft could be waiting for technologies like X-Rings to be ready to make a serious play.