Other Input Devices

Author: Jerry Smith

If aliens were to draw pictures of what they thought humans looked liked based only on the input and output devices used with our computer technology they would probably draw spider like images of creatures with two eyes and five fingers. Unfortunately for the virtual reality industry, humans have quite a few other body parts that will need to produce output and receive input. To achieve a true sense of immersion, virtual reality systems will need to put humans 'into' the computer.

Currently, virtual reality systems are made of a computer, a stereoscopic headmouted display, and a glove lined with sensors to allow the user a means of manipulating the virtual environment. Using the old analogy of a computer as a window to another world, we can see that current virtual reality systems have only opened the window far enough to allow users to reach into the window, not far enough to actually get inside the other world. As a noted philosopher once said, "The mind can only go where the body takes it". And without a body, users exercise only limited amounts of their skill and control in these computer generated worlds.

Surprisingly, only a handful of products and research exist to develop virtual reality into a totally immersive environment by creating input devices for next-generation VR systems. These hardy trailblazers come from diverse backgrounds, some computer engineers, some behavioral scientists, and some actors and puppeteers. Indeed, it seems the ideal degree program for an alternative input device designer would include a heavy course load in physiology, psychology, acting (or puppeteering or dance), computer hardware, and computer graphics.

A few of the most popular or unusual devices currently available (or in research) follow:

DataSuit (VPL Research)

Using the same fiber optic flex-sensing technology made popular in the VPL DataGlove, this full body suit can track the movement of the arms, legs, feet, and torso with up to fifty different sensors on the users joints and with four Polhemus trackers (position sensors). The DataSuit is not yet commercially available due to the complex calibration process the suit must go through for each new user.

Dozo (Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company)

This 3-D demonstration video used video motion analysis to tape the movements of a real person and then to translate the motions onto a computer-generated rock star. The video runs three and a half minutes and is modeled as a music video. The motion is captured with video cameras linked to image processors. Special reflective material are attached to the actor's (in this case a dancer's) joints and limbs. As the actor moves the changes at those points are recorded and fed to the computers.

High Cycle (Autodesk)

Connecting sensors to a stationary bicycle allowed Autodesk's High Cycle to give users a more enjoyable workout. Wearing VPL eyephones, users would pedal the stationary bicycle through a virtual landscape. If they pedaled fast enough they would rise off of the landscape and fly above the virtual horizon. The handle bars also allowed users to steer in the virtual world.

Tarbo (The Character Shop)

Waldo is actually a cartoon dinosaur with a unique ability to mimic human facial expressions. He does this with the aide of an input device that tracks the movement of a human's face and translates that movement into analogous movement for Tarbo's face. A user would were a head-mounted device that uses several sensors to track the movements of various facial muscles and the jaw.

VIDEOPLACE (Univ. of Utah)

This unique project used the user's shadow as the input device to control the simulation. VIDEOPLACE would capture a user's body image with a video camera. The user could paint on the screen by simply waving a hand around. In another simulation and the Univ. of Utah an animated cartoon character (called CRITTER) would climb around on the virtual shadow.

Virtual Racquetball (Autodesk)

By attaching position and orientation sensors on a racquetball racket, Autodesk created a computerized racquetball game that allowed players to use real racquetball rackets as their input devices. The players could play virtual racquetball from thousands of miles away using phone lines.


Aukstakalnis, S., & Blatner, D. (1992). Silicon Mirage: The Art & Science of Virtual Reality. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

Gelernter, D. (1991). Mirror Worlds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Pimentel, K., Teixeira, K. (1992). Through the New Looking Glass. New York, NY: Intel Press.

Rheingold H. (1991). Virtual Reality. New York, NY: Summit Books.

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Human Interface Technology Laboratory