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Tech Times | Putting the physics in virtual reality

Published:Monday | December 5, 2016 | 12:00 AMRachel Metz

A small startup is trying to improve virtual reality by simulating characters' bones and motions more realistically.

Virtual reality can be impressively immersive and realistic, but it's still unusual to have experiences where you really, truly feel you're interacting with digital imagery - to the point that you have a ghostly sense of touching or poking something you know isn't there, even as all the visuals point to the contrary. I had one of those rare moments recently as I tried a demo made by a small start-up called Midas Touch Games. While wearing an old Oculus developer headset that had a Leap Motion gesture controller attached to its front, I used stick-like virtual hands to play with an animated dog in a way that felt oddly true to life. I could tug at its ears or tail, lift the animal by its front legs, put my fingers in its mouth, and more. And every time I touched the dog with one or both hands, it responded with body movements that were much like what I'd expect from a real furry friend.

Midas Touch made this work by building software meant to properly mimic physics in virtual reality. In the case of the dog demo, for instance, it models the input device (my bare hands) as different bones that can collide with the dog. The dog, too, is modeled with 20 to 30 bones that have mass, shape, and friction, which can collide with my hands. The software uses the force of that impact to figure out which muscles to tighten on the dog.

The start-up aims to license its technology to others, who can add it to games and other VR applications and create digital images that you can push, ram into each other, and so on, in ways that simulate how these things happen in the real world. The company's cofounder and CEO, Kevin He, thinks this characteristic is essential to making VR feel more lifelike and entrancing.

Evan Suma, a research assistant professor who studies virtual reality at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, says that Midas Touch is getting at one of the key things needed for VR to confer a sense of presence: the illusion of plausibility. "You're no longer a spectator but a participant in the world," he says.