A man tries out a Samsung Electronics' Gear VR at its store in Seoul, Jan. 23, 2017. Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Virtual reality technology evolves every year with features such as high-end graphics and surround sound to keep the user involved. But, a new technology might mark its leap from just providing users virtual engagement to actually providing them physical sensation along with virtual stimulation.

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Human-computer interaction researcher Pedro Lopes and his team have created a wearable that uses small electric shocks directly to the users’ muscles to provide them the physical sensation of touching or lifting something.

The wearable is made of eight electrodes, which are attached to the wearer’s forearms, biceps, triceps and shoulders. These electrodes are attached to a medical eight-channel muscle simulator. The entire thing is worn as a backpack with attachments.

“We were really interested in trying to explore one of the hardest things to recreate in terms of physical sensation, which is a wall. The major potential here is that this is something you can have with very little hardware. The hardware is a few flat electrodes on your arms. No exoskeletons, big setups. You just put the electrodes on, and suddenly you have walls, buttons you can press, a cube you can hold on, and you feel the weight,” Lopes told FastCompany Design Friday.

Lopes and his team are basically using the wearer’s own muscles to provide him/her with an artificial sensation of a counter force, similar to one experienced in the real world. The feeling of resistance to a physical object for example is triggered by opposing muscles. The wearable also mimics the sensation of holding something or pressing a button using electrodes attached to the wearer’s skin.

The wearable provides the feel of physical structures in a virtual world. Earlier, it was only left to the user’s imagination to get the feel of a game. With this technology, the user will actually feel the sensations associated with various elements of the game. The level of force exerted by the electrodes can be modified according to the virtual environment’s requirements.

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As for mimicking the real world feel and also the effect of the electric shock, Lopes said: “We realized that if we let you just feel a short pulse for 300 milliseconds, you won’t even know where it’s coming from, but your muscles will react. Because it’s so brief, there’s no way you can rationalize it.”

Physicality might be the next step in VR and as Lopes has illustrated, electric muscle stimulation might be a way to achieve it.