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Bristol’s ‘lightweight, affordable’ Mantis arms bring force feedback out of the lab

Professional Engineering

A user interacts with the University of Bristol's Mantis device. It is designed for use alongside a VR headset (Credit: University of Bristol)
A user interacts with the University of Bristol's Mantis device. It is designed for use alongside a VR headset (Credit: University of Bristol)

A new “lightweight, affordable and simple” force feedback device could bring immersive virtual reality (VR) out of the research laboratory.

Designed for tactile human-computer interaction, the University of Bristol’s Mantis robotic arms introduce haptic feedback to simulate the sensation of touch.

“Humans already have a great sense of touch,” said lead researcher Dr Anne Roudaut, from Bristol's department of computer science. “Mantis expands on this innate ability by enabling people to touch and feel 3D objects, adding more depth to the VR experience.”

She added: “Imagine a user playing a game in VR with Mantis attached to their fingers. They could then touch and feel virtual objects, thus immersing themselves both visually and physically in an alternative dimension.”

In engineering sectors, VR is also often used for training or modelling purposes. The Mantis could make programs more tactile, creating more convincing simulations of interactions with machines or the environment.

A promotional video shows a user interacting with the device using both hands simultaneously. Hinged arms respond and provide feedback.

The Mantis includes closed loop force control for high power density, and makes use of brushless motors and 3D-printed parts. It also has a wheeled base for accessibility. The machine is scalable, and could be used in desktop or larger configurations. The video even shows a Mantis mounted in a backpack for portable use.

Researchers aim to make it even more accessible by giving out plans for the machine, which uses lower grade components than high-fidelity equivalents to minimise cost. A new spin-out, Senmag Robotics, aims to release kits by the end of the year.

The work was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Leverhulme Trust.

Dr Roudaut and PhD student Gareth Barnaby are presenting the Mantis at the User Interface Software and Technology conference in New Orleans, which runs until Wednesday (23 October).

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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