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Can You Take a Punch? Find Out With This Conceptual Jacket From Disney Research, MIT

The next time you take your kids to Disney World, they just might beg to suit up in a Force Jacket.

No, it’s not a “may the force be with you” kind of jacket—though the experimental topper could help you appreciate Disneyland’s Star Wars theme park in a whole new way.

As if virtual reality (VR) via those awkward head-mounted displays isn’t immersive enough, experts from Disney Research and MIT came up with the experimental Force Jacket to further bring virtual experiences to life with vibrations, compression and “force” to help wearers feel the sensations they’re witnessing inside their virtual worlds.

The researchers described their achievement in a scholarly paper entitled “Force Jacket: Pneumatically-Actuated Jacket for Embodied Haptic Experiences.” That’s a mouthful, so we’ll just go with Force Jacket.

In essence, the team created a system of airbags and sensors built into a rudimentary jacket that delivers a variety of sensations to the upper body. It won’t win any points for style, but it’s effective in communicating sensations that enable wearers to “feel” things like a punch, a hug from a child (and one from an adult) and a snake (friendly, of course) slithering all around the body, to name just a few.

In wear testing sessions, participants gave the highest marks to the snake, as well as the motorcycle vibration effect which they found to be the most realistic. Low scores went to the punch, the feeling of being tapped on the hand, and being pelted with a snowball.

A garment like the Force Jacket—it’s not the first VR-oriented clothing—is designed for hardcore gamers and other highly experiential environments, like Disney’s theme parks, including many of the immersive rides at Universal Studios. But the researchers also envision the Force Jacket being useful for remote applications in which someone wants to send a hug from afar—such as a father away from home on business sending a good-night hug to his child. It could also aid with training workers in certain situations so they understand the ramifications of their actions, or with rehabilitation for infirm individuals who require stimuli to re-learn certain activities.

For now, researchers admit that the “very bulky” Force Jacket design is “confining” for wearers and plan iterative, user-friendly product updates. Plus, the compressor and vacuum pumps that power the jacket’s airbags present a noisy limitation to true usability, the researchers wrote.

Still, expect more of these apparel innovations going forward, as VR takes hold in the entertainment world.