British company Ultrahaptics has developed a technology that uses ultrasound to project and shape sensations through the air directly onto the hands, allowing users to 'feel' and interact with 3D virtual objects - all without actually touching anything. Matthew Stock reports.
What if you could actually touch and feel virtual objects? That's the premise of UK-based Ultrahaptics, whose unique technology lets users receive tactile sensations from virtual objects floating in mid-air. By focusing complex patterns of ultrasound emanating from a specially designed pad, the air disturbances can be manipulated into floating 3D shapes that can be felt. Co-developer Professor Sriram Subramanian (pron. Sri-ram Sub-Ra-manian) says it's similar to the feeling of sound waves hitting your chest at a concert; a principle known as acoustic radiation force. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR SRIRAM SUBRAMANIAN, CO-DEVELOPER OF ULTRAHAPTIC TECHNOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT, SAYING: "If you go to a night club or a rock concert, you feel the music in your chest. And it's the same principal - you feel the sound vibrating your chest. And instead of using the bass sounds, what we use is low frequency ultrasound - about 40 kHz - and that way we can target it at a precise point on your finger tip or on your palm, and then you feel the palm vibrate and it feel precise as well." With touchless technologies increasingly changing the way people interact with devices, the team believes there will be a need for some sort of tactile, sensory feedback. If, say, you push a virtual button that can't be felt, how can you be sure that the button has actually been pushed? Ultrahaptics believe they have the solution. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR SRIRAM SUBRAMANIAN, CO-DEVELOPER OF ULTRAHAPTIC TECHNOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT, SAYING: "There is a tendency towards doing things touchless. One of the advantages of having a touchless system is that the interaction comes to you; instead of going and touching the light switch, you just wave your hand and the light comes on. And this is going to be ubiquitous, and as it becomes ubiquitous people are going to need this kind of tactile feedback." Virtual or enhanced reality is the next frontier of computer interaction... but the sense of touch has long been considered a step too far into science fiction. While still at the prototype stage, Ultrahaptics hope their technology will eventually lead to touchable holograms and truly immersive virtual reality.