Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) continue to make inroads in many areas, including healthcare. This puts a spotlight on a yet-to-be-solved problem: how to capture user inputs in a natural way. Handheld game controllers are okay for some applications, but in order to create a truly immersive experience, we need a better user interface. Hand gestures are the natural solution; we frequently interact with our real world with out hands. But there is not a low-cost solution that does not restrict movement or limit the locations where it works.

Researchers at Dalian University of Technology in China have come up with a possible answer. When you send light signals through an optical fiber, it is possible to sense deflections of the fiber. Traditional glass fibers are not durable enough for applications with strenuous bending or stretching. Others have used plastic fibers, but these researchers found that by bending the fibers in a U-shape increased their sensitivity to movement. By putting such a fiber in each finger of a glove, they can make a low cost sensor system that can detect hand motions precisely. The system is made more accurate by the addition of a sixth fiber that connects directly to the controller; this provides a signal that can be used to self-calibrate the other five channels.

The result is a sensor glove that retains its accuracy after 100 cycles of bending the fiber to a 5 mm radius. It is structurally stable, easy to manufacture, and the design can be adjusted for different size hands or applications. And at the same time, the gloves can be produced at a low cost.

Better and less-expensive sensor gloves could play an important part in expanding the use of VR and AR in a wide range of healthcare applications.