Subtle Sensing

Project started in 2019

In Sculpting the Invisible, we developed technology that let us play with new materials whose physics is entirely different from the sorts of physics to which we are accustomed in our day-to-day experience. For me this is extremely exciting: real-time supercomputing combined with VR makes it possible for us to literally reach out and ‘touch’ molecular objects as they move, folding them, knotting them, plucking them, changing their shapes, and testing how they respond to interactions – a whole new sense of ‘touch’ which appears to primarily rely on our proprioceptive senses. Having shown this stuff to nearly a thousand people, it’s been interesting to witness how often people comment to me on how differently a (virtual!) biological protein ‘feels’ compared to a (virtual) carbon nanotube. The mechanisms for such ‘feeling’ are not entirely clear: observing from outside VR, there is in fact nothing physical for participants to ‘feel’.

We’ve started to refer to this kind of ‘feeling’ as ‘subtle sensing’, and we’re actively carrying out work intended to try and gain insight into the mechanisms for ‘subtle sensing’, and also the perceptual limits of what people can detect. By investigating how people experience virtual materialities (tubes, balls, strings, etc…) versus their physical counterparts, we’re working at the frontiers of technology, computation, aesthetics, design, and psychology. Recently we’ve even taken steps to construct our own VR data gloves to enable manipulation of virtual objects. You can read more about these gloves (which we call OMG-VR – Open Mudra Gloves for Virtual Reality) at this link.