Can wire feel like velvet?

An exhibit table and display board, with vertically strung wires on timber frames. The title 'can wire feel like velvet?' appears on the backboard.

The tactile Velvet Hand Illusion (VHI) demonstrates how the brain can 'fill in' different types of information.

How it works

Rub your hands over wires to generate the Velvet Hand Illusion (VHI). The wires may feel slightly 'fuzzy', jelly-like or velvety, which is surprising given the hardness of the wires.

Things to try or ask around the exhibit

  • Do you feel a weaker illusion with the wires that are spaced further apart?
  • Would you get the same effect if the wires were horizontal?
  • How could this illusion be used in things such as a virtual reality game?

Background

The velvety tactile sensation tends to be felt in skin between two lines or pieces of wire, rather than the entire region of your hand. As you rub your hands across the wires, the gaps between the touch receptors in your skin may be ‘filled in’ by your brain, so it feels velvety. This is called the filling-in phenomenon.

When the illusion is tried on horizontal, rather than vertical wires, the illusion isn’t as strong or consistent for many people. Similarly, a single wire tends to give a weaker illusion.

Finding the science in your world

Virtual reality games use sights and sounds to create virtual worlds, but other developers are researching taste, smell and touch to make games more vivid, including the Velvet Hand Illusion.