Can you feel without touching? (No, I don’t mean empathy here.) 

Can you, for example, feel fire engulfing your body or a smite of cold blizzard on your face, even as you are safely ensconced in your room? 

An emerging branch of science, called ‘chemical haptics’, is taking virtual reality closer to reality than ever before. If you strap on a headset and switch on a button, you can not only ‘travel’ to impossible places, such as the inside of a burning room or the edge of a parapet wall in a high-rise building, but can also actually ‘feel’ your virtual environs.  

Scientists at the University of Chicago — Jasmine Lu, et al — have come up with a class of liquid stimulants that they call ‘chemical haptics’. These chemicals are contained in a wearable device, which also has micropumps to push the liquids through channels that open on to the user’s skin. In a paper titled ‘Rendering haptic sensations via topical stimulants’, the authors say that these stimulants contain “safe and small doses of key active ingredients”; chemical receptors in the user’s skin are triggered, rendering distinct haptic sensations.  

The scientists have so far come up with five distinct sensations: tingling (sanshool), numbing (lidocaine), stinging (cinnamaldehyde), warming (capsaicin), and cooling (menthol). 

Lu explains in the paper, and in her videos, that sensations such as numbness are not possible with the existing haptic devices, whereas it is possible with wearable devices.  

Until l now, virtual reality has been about you being where you are not, but now this technology takes it literally out of the world. 

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