Touching the void: virtual reality

Could AR make for safer operations in hospitals?
06 June 2017

Interview with 

Peter Cowley, Angel Investorys


Would you ever want to feel like you’re at the centre of a video game? Virtual reality is getting closer and closer to real life thanks to the introduction of touch sensors. Tech expert and Angel Investor Peter Cowley spoke to TImothy Revell...

Peter - Virtual reality is the concept where the image that one is viewing is completely computer generated. So it’s generated by graphics or it’s generated by one of these new 360 degree cameras.

Mixed reality, which is a term that’s disappearing gradually, is where you mix the actual scene around you as a human being with some computer generated scene. Augmented reality has not got the ability to interact with that so that in augmented reality you can’t necessarily push something and it will move. But augmented reality is the future where you’re interacting with something else in the environment.

Tim - Some people talk about starting to introduce touch into this equation. How does that work?

Peter - We’re using sight and sound and this is adding a third sense. So this is where some part of your body, whether it’s the chest or the arm, fingers, etc., is experiencing something which is mechanical, so it feels like you’re actually touching some subject or some object. That’s come about because of a whole stack of new technologies like these micro accelerometers in your phones etc., have all got very cheap, and connectivity, so it’s been put together to provide devices which are not necessarily on your skin - a thimble might do it, but also blowing air. There’s a great video on the internet of a butterfly floating around on somebody’s arm which is done by puffs of air from various directions hitting the skin of the arm.

Tim - Besides this being really cool, is this useful in some way?

Peter - Gaming has used it for a long time. In fact, if you go back further still, the stick shakers which were put on the vulcan bomber in the 50s if it was about to stall, that’s feedback into the system.

There’s a lot of new applications - for instance medical. I saw a medical robotics company in Cambridge on Friday which is allowing the surgeon to feel the tissue inside the body while he’s operating on it. Training for aircraft maintenance, military, etc. There’s a new one as well in teaching where you can get the students to understand something better like a three dimensional image if they can feel it at the same time as see it.

Tim - In terms of surgery - is this for robotic surgery? Could you also imagine a situation where you were practicing on a body that doesn’t even exist yet but you’re getting the same sorts of feelings you might do when you’re a surgeon?

Peter - Absolutely. For training purposes you could be inside the body doing things so that you get a feel for what’s it’s going to be like when you’ve got a real human being in front of you.

Tim - How far away is this from becoming normal or something we can actually use?

Peter - If you remember the Microsoft Kinect, which was a gaming device, that’s being used for the gait of horses or the gait of people, so applications come out of other things. At the moment it’s definitely strongly used in gaming. But the killer app, if there is a killer app, hasn’t been found yet. There’s a huge amount of technology and a huge amount of investment going into VR and AR headsets and the world will work out what the best use is for it, but it’s not that clear for me at the moment.


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