Tactile touchless feedback will let you reach out and feel virtual worlds

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.

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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.


Virtual telephone box: the multisensory VR system living the holodeck dream

A fully immersive virtual reality system that satisfies all the senses could be the future of communication.

Designed as a modern-day version of a telephone box, the system combines Oculus Rift and VR headphones with heat, smell and breeze sources to create a completely immersive world where you can feel fires, smell flowers and sense an open window.

This achieved through a heater and fan built into the box, which are triggered at appropriate points in the virtual world.

Dubbed Omnipresence, the system is being developed by Robert André, an interaction a product designer and graduate student at legendary design college Ravensbourne.

André, who is developing the system as part of his MSc in Interactive Product Futures, sees the system as an affordable tool for immersive communication.

“Imagine it on every other street corner and used in the same way you used the telephone box in the past where you go in and you’re fully immersed in that conversation,” he said.

“So you go in and you want to talk to somebody in – I don’t know – Tahiti. You could meet them in Tahiti, or they could meet you in London, or alternatively they could meet you in any location available, just dial up the location that you want to be in and you’re there.”

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The idea of the system is to be able to provide a way of directly communicating with people anywhere in the world that is far superior to calls or video chat.

“The way that the prototype is at the moment, someone can leave a message for you, and rather than interacting with an avatar, you have an actual person there,” he said. “So you can see the whole facial features, the hand movements, the gestures.”

He plans to widen this in the future with the introduction of a scanning system that would allow people to appear in real-time to each other within the virtual environments.

An important aspect of the system has been keeping the components as affordable as possible so that the system can be used on a mass scale, rather than as a geek toy for the few.

“If the component parts can be really, really cheap it just becomes more available to people who wouldn’t normally afford it,” André explained.

“At the moment what I used for the unit was a fan that I had in my house, a heater that I bought off Amazon – it cost, I think, £10 – all the components are fairly cheap. The Oculus is £300, but Sony have the Morpheus coming out, Samsung are making something at the moment, Nintendo I’m sure will try again; it’s a good thing.”

At present the user moves through the world with the aid of a keyboard, but there are plans to use a foot-tapping device.

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André provided us with the opportunity to try the system, and it did not disappoint – it was actually an incredibly cool, futuristic experience, even in its current, rough-around-the-edges state.

In time we could see this being developed for a whole host of uses, including virtual holidays and gaming. But does André agree?

“I think the potential is quite broad. Some other people have talked about the potential of real-estate, checking out a home or something,” he said. “This is communications, so whether you are communicating with a friend of a colleague, or a suspect in a police case, then the location could vary, the ambience varies.”

He also sees the possibilities for education, and explained the system could be used by many people at once, such as a class of schoolchildren.

“It could be a school or it could be a museum, you could take them to anywhere in the past, anywhere in the future, any possible locations even outside of the confines of earth,” he said.

André is now looking for funding to develop the system into a finished product, and for the sake of everyone who’s dreamed of owning a holodeck, we hope he gets it soon.


Images courtesy of Robert André.