British company Ultrahaptics has developed a unique technology that enables users to receive tactile sensations from invisible three dimension objects floating in mid-air. Using ultrasound to precisely project sensations through the air, users can 'feel' and interact with virtual objects.
Professor Sriram Subramanian, who co-developed the haptic technology at the University of Bristol's Computer Science Department, explained that their device applies the principles of acoustic radiation force, whereby sound waves produce forces on the skin which are strong enough to generate tactile sensations.
"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."
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.
The Bristol-based company recently announced the closing of a £600,000 (approx. 918,000 USD) seed round of investment. The financing allowed the company to accelerate the development of the Ultrahaptic device, including substantially improving the computing power and performance of the technology.
"Typically what we've done is try to create one focal point at a time. And that's been computationally quite expensive until now. What we've doubled up right now is a way we can speed up this process substantially. And that means that, instead of doing one at a time, I can do hundreds at a time. And when I do hundreds at a time and put a hundred focal points around your finger tip or around your palm, those hundred feel like a circle. And if I track your palm and move them up and down, and if I change the diameter of these focal points, you start feeling like you are going through a sphere. And this is how we generate shapes," said Subramanian.
While the team's device is still in the prototype stage, they believe it has a diverse range of potential real world applications; with touchable holograms, immersive virtual reality that you can feel and complex touchable controls in mid-air all possible applications of the system. They say it could even enable surgeons to explore a CT letting them to feel a disease, such as a tumour, using haptic feedback.
Touchless technologies, including virtual and augmented reality (AR), have become increasingly advanced in delivering a multi-sensory experience to the user. But while sight and sound can be replicated using gadgets such as Facebook's Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and Google Glass, the sense of touch has long been seen as a step too far into science fiction. But the team at Ultrahaptic hopes to change all that and say their device could offer the crucial sense of touch to existing virtual technologies.
"You can see the object and maybe you can interact with this object visually, but you don't feel anything. What we're offering is that missing feeling these holographic objects. That I think is the crucial distinction as well as the advantage of what we're offering. We're not saying get rid of the holographic display. What we're saying is, attach our system to it and then you can start feeling objects as well as seeing them. This gives you better finesse, control," said Subramanian.
He added that as the trend towards touchless technologies continues, there will be a need for some sort of tactile, sensory feedback. For example, if 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.
"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."
Ultrahaptics is currently running an evaluation programme to determine applications for its device, with several component manufacturing companies enrolled. The company plans to license the technology to a diverse array of markets including consumer electronics, home appliance and automotive.