Re-defining VR: The Introduction of Tangible Artifacts in Virtual Reality Narratives.

Synaesthetic Media Lab (Synlab) has long been engrossed in exploring various emerging modalities in contemporary media, with the think-tank’s research focused primarily on developing tangible and embodied interaction technologies that natively support creative practices that transcend the physical world, into a digital one.

It is due to this reputation that, when news of the lab’s collaboration with Responsive Ecologies Lab (RE/Lab); the interdisciplinary, collaborative research facility, the excitement of many stakeholders in the Virtual Reality and related technologies domain was palpable.

Tangible Artifacts in VR
Photo by Jakob Owens

The brainchild of this union was a new virtual reality technology, which presented a system for placing diegetic, tangible and interactive objects in virtual reality environments and their accompanying narratives.

Diegetic objects, in this sense, refers to the interactive physical objects that have an associated meaning within the virtual reality environments and linked narratives. This system is discussed in Harley et al. (2017) study titled Tangible VR: The introduction of tangible artifacts in virtual reality narratives.

This implementation, Harley et al. (2017) hopes, will solve some of the limitations introduced with contemporary controller-based virtual interactions which are the current industry-standard in consumer Virtual Reality experiences.

Despite the possible interactions being impressive leaps in interactive technologies, their tactile and tangible qualities dictate that they can only communicate a limited amount of information about the objects that you interact with, and the environment- the story world in which these objects exist.

VR Interactions: The Development of Tangible Artifacts

More so with the emerging design trends and hardware development in VR being geared towards reducing sensory conflict, the entire sphere is still limited with the first generation of consumer hardware, whose whole interaction with the tangible objects in virtual worlds consists primarily of haptic feedback engines and motion-tracking controllers.

To counteract the dire lack of hardware-enabled fluidity, developers of VR games and applications generally dial back, with the lack of a body and other complex interactions in VR being evidence of this bid to achieve consistency, accuracy and mitigate sensory shocks.

Some developers go an intuitive step further, by designing cockpit-style VR titles, such as games featuring cars and spaceships, as an attempt to marry the interactions of the virtual and physical worlds; with a seated experience for users who are also seated.

Harley et al. (2017), on the other hand, are seeking to revolutionize the entire field with their proprietary system. Their complete invention, despite being entirely custom-built, is designed with low-cost (but quality), off-the-shelf components, with an integrated bespoke sensor unit that is intended to track objects in Virtual Reality environments essentially. On its current stage of development, the sensor captures data that track a specific object’s orientation and initiating specifically designed and supported interactions for each artifact.

The development labs have then developed and emphasized on the use of passive and active feedback for the tangible objects; with active haptic feedback for digital responses, such as timed vibrations during an interaction with objects, and passive haptic feedback for non-digital responses, such as the texture and the weight of objects.

It is through the marriage of all these considerations together, that seeks to expand the design space of how we interact with elements in tangible narratives in a two-fold approach. First, with the range of objects that we can interact with, and secondly, by ensuring the visual affordances of Virtual Reality, with all objects gaining and losing their visual attributes with fluidity.

So far, the two labs have collaboratively developed four interactive objects and a self-contained sensory unit, in encasement within the system, as proof of concept prototypes. The artifacts include a cube, a treasure chest, a wooden boat, and a stuffed animal.

These are the objects that these two developers use to demonstrate how they implement both passive and active feedback to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual worlds and on which active development is currently ongoing to expand the range of interactions and physical characteristics of the tangible objects.


Despite the technology, much like VR in entirety, being very much in its infancy. It is certain that this collaboration of Harley et al. (2017) – and their brainchild could very well be the next evolutionary step in Virtual Interactions, immersion, and mitigation of sensory shocks in VR environments. This system’s revolutionary introduction of interactive objects into virtual environments, and how a user interacts with these artifacts, is one significant step in the amalgamation of the physical and virtual reality worlds.

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1 Response

  1. 13/02/2019

    […] necessary in understanding seemingly complicated subjects. As seen with the past articles on virtual reality and augmented realities, each of those technologies offers an opportunity to integrate new digital […]

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