| SINGAPORE, Sept 30
SINGAPORE, Sept 30 Ultrasound - inaudible sound
waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring
the unborn - may change the way we interact with our mobile
Couple that with a different kind of wave - light, in the
form of lasers - and we're edging towards a world of 3D,
holographic displays hovering in the air that we can touch, feel
UK start-up Ultrahaptics, for example, is working with
premium car maker Jaguar Land Rover to create
invisible air-based controls that drivers can feel and tweak.
Instead of fumbling for the dashboard radio volume or
temperature slider, and taking your eyes off the road,
ultrasound waves would form the controls around your hand.
"You don't have to actually make it all the way to a
surface, the controls find you in the middle of the air and let
you operate them," says Tom Carter, co-founder and chief
technology officer of Ultrahaptics.
Such technologies, proponents argue, are an advance on
devices we can control via gesture - like Nintendo's
Wii or Leap Motion's sensor device that allows users to control
computers with hand gestures. That's because they mimic the
tactile feel of real objects by firing pulses of inaudible sound
to a spot in mid air.
They also move beyond the latest generation of tactile
mobile interfaces, where companies such as Apple and
Huawei are building more response into the cold glass
of a mobile device screen.
Ultrasound promises to move interaction from the flat and
physical to the three dimensional and air-bound. And that's just
By applying similar theories about waves to light, some
companies hope to not only reproduce the feel of a mid-air
interface, but to make it visible, too.
Japanese start-up Pixie Dust Technologies, for example,
wants to match mid-air haptics with tiny lasers that create
visible holograms of those controls. This would allow users to
interact, say, with large sets of data in a 3D aerial interface.
"It would be like the movie 'Iron Man'," says Takayuki
Hoshi, a co-founder, referencing a sequence in the film where
the lead character played by Robert Downey Jr. projects
holographic images and data in mid-air from his computer, which
he is then able to manipulate by hand.
Japan has long been at the forefront of this technology.
Hiroyuki Shinoda, considered the father of mid-air haptics, said
he first had the idea of an ultrasound tactile display in the
1990s and filed his first patent in 2001.
His team at the University of Tokyo is using ultrasound
technology to allow people to remotely see, touch and interact
with things or each other. For now, the distance between the two
is limited by the use of mirrors, but one of its inventors,
Keisuke Hasegawa, says this could eventually be converted to a
signal, making it possible to interact whatever the distance.
For sure, promises of sci-fi interfaces have been broken
before. And even the more modest parts of this technology are
some way off. Lee Skrypchuk, Jaguar Land Rovers' Human Machine
Interface Technical Specialist, said technology like
Ultrahaptics' was still 5-7 years away from being in their cars.
And Hoshi, whose Pixie Dust has made promotional videos of
people touching tiny mid-air sylphs, says the cost of components
needs to fall further to make this technology commercially
viable. "Our task for now is to tell the world about this
technology," he says.
Pixie Dust is in the meantime also using ultrasound to form
particles into mid-air shapes, so-called acoustic levitation,
and speakers that direct sound to some people in a space and not
others - useful in museums or at road crossings, says Hoshi.
FROM KITCHEN TO CAR
But the holy grail remains a mid-air interface that combines
touch and visuals.
Hoshi says touching his laser plasma sylphs feels like a
tiny explosion on the fingertips, and would best be replaced by
a more natural ultrasound technology.
And even laser technology itself is a work in progress.
Another Japanese company, Burton Inc, offers live outdoor
demonstrations of mid-air laser displays fluttering like
fireflies. But founder Hidei Kimura says he's still trying to
interest local governments in using it to project signs that
float in the sky alongside the country's usual loudspeaker
alerts during a natural disaster.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercialising mid-air
interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers'
fantasies but to the customer's bottom line.
Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the
world's biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are
interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires
no special chip and removes the need for a phone's optical
Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology
uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a
selfie, say, by waving at the screen.
Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung
Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its
phones, but says "people didn't use it".
Danielsen says her technology is better because it's cheaper
and broadens the field in which users can control their devices.
Next stop, she says, is including touchless gestures into the
kitchen, or cars.
(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)