The ability to reach out and touch an object in virtual reality, feeling its texture as you run your hand across its virtual surface, could soon be a reality with the development of tactile feedback for touchless interactions.
The technology, known as UltraHaptics, is a haptic feedback system using ultrasound that provides users with a buzz-like feeling of pressure on their hand.
It was initially designed as a way to indicate that a touchless gesture had been performed successfully – something that is not always clear – and has potential uses in everything from surgery environments to gaming.
However, the technology can do more than just provide a feeling of pressure; by changing the frequency the ultrasound wave is emitted at, the designers have discovered that they can mimic different textures, giving the user the sensation of touching everything from fabric to a hard surface.
The technology consists of a grid of ultrasound wave emitters, which together combine to provide a feeling of pressure on the skin.
At present it can provide haptic feedback precisely targeted at a point 8.5mm in diameter from a distance of anything between 4cm and 2m.
Its designers, from the UK’s Bristol University, are confident that this precision can be increased; the ultrasound technology used was developed in the 1990s and has significant further miniaturisation potential.
Initially the technology was tried using a constant wave of 40khz ultrasound, however the human hand could not easily discern this, so the researchers switched to an intermittent wave that turns on and off in very quick succession.
The technology does not just provide the sensation of flat surfaces, but can also be used to create the feel of 3D objects.
While this clearly gives it significant potential in virtual reality technology, perhaps in partnership with an Oculus Rift, it also gives the technology several other potential applications.
Hologram projections could be given a texture, with museum visitors, for example, able to feel the armour of a famous king projected in a display.
Sculptors could also use the technology to shape virtual objects using just their hands, with the technology providing tactile feedback as they work.
The technology has huge potential in many fields – it could be used to indicate to drivers when a car is in their blind spot by providing a buzzing sensation on their neck, or developed as a wearable for blind people to indicate the presence of a road or obstacle.
However, consumer fields are likely to be most interested due to the technology’s ability to augment existing entertainment systems.
Speaking at last week’s Re.Work Technology Summit in London, Sriram Subramanian, co-founder of UltraHaptics and professor of human computer interface at Bristol University, said: “We’ve had lots of interest from the consumer home appliances, business and consumer electronics sectors.”
While it’s early days, it looks like this technology could be a key component of the entertainment of the future.