Haptic feedback is perhaps one of the most interesting features in modern tech. It works like this: Thanks to a device’s vibration motor, it allows for a simulated response as you interact with it.
To provide an example, let’s say you’re playing a pinball game on a smartphone. When the onscreen elements interact with one another, the phone will vibrate. This does things like letting you know the ball bounced against the edges of the table, or even interacted with various bumpers and table decorations. In this regard, it makes you feel like you’re really playing pinball on a physical table.
A company called UltraHaptics wants to take this idea to the next level. It has a dream and a mission to change the way we interact with modern electronics.
It’s created a unique technology that works similar to traditional Haptic feedback. The new technology produces three-dimensional shapes out of thin air that can to be interacted with, improving the overall experience. How is this possible? The technology employs ultrasound. UltraHaptics says that it will allow us to start “feeling without touching.”
It’s difficult to imagine how this will work just by reading a sentence or two, so we’ll try to explain it. The technology is designed to emit sound waves, which will allow device users to feel sensations and interact with them. It will be as if your tablet, phone or similar device projects elements into the air, suspended directly above them. When you reach down to interact by tapping, scrolling or performing any other type of gesture, you’ll experience sensations, meant to give you the impression of feedback. In other words, you’ll be touching and interacting with invisible objects.
The technology essentially creates changes in air pressure in the general vicinity, which can be perceived by us as tactile surfaces. Keep in mind, these surfaces are going to be wholly invisible. For all intents and purposes, they will feel like they’re right there in front of you, but in all reality they’re not.
Imagine, for a moment, what technology like this could do when paired with something like virtual reality. Just imagine using an Oculus Rift, which is designed to give you a completely visual experience, in tandem with these invisible yet tangible surfaces. The possibilities are endless.
Better yet, it could be used in manufacturing to hash out a final design for a product and improve standard usability testing.
How Can It Be Used?
Of course, there are many other ways this technology could be used to improve our lives and various other products. For instance, Tom Carter of UltraHaptics imagines a vehicle dashboard using his company’s tech.
“Imagine the dashboard of a car having no buttons, no switches, no ugly controls: just a very nice, sleek dashboard. If you’re driving and you want to have the music up, for example, you don’t have to take your eyes off the road; you just hold your hand out and the controls stick to your hand, so you can feel them.”
It truly is an amazing prospect. If it all pans out, it could render physical buttons outdated. What’s the need for a big, ugly physical button when one can simply be produced out of thin air?
“Haptics is more than just the sense of touch. It’s really all of the information that you get from the sense of touch. What you’re feeling, what sort of pressure, the tactile sensation given by an object or surface. You also know where your limbs are and how they’re moving, all from the sense of touch. It’s all this information that cues how you’re interacting with the world,”
… so says Carter. Then again, it will depend on the type of power and hardware required to produce such surfaces.
Ultrasound Technology and How It Works
UltraHaptics’ tech requires small ultrasound speakers, which create sound waves in the air around them. To create the sensation of a solid object or surface, the waves are concentrated on a specific point or area.
Carter chalks it up to nothing more than just displacement of your skin.
“If you put your hand in the way, it actually emits enough of a force on your hand to slightly displace your skin. We use that and control it to vibrate your skin, and give you this feeling. What you eventually get is a sensation of vibration on your hands.”
When you boil it down, the technology simply gives the illusion – through sound waves – that you’re interacting with a surface.
The current prototype can create a surface of about 8.5 millimeters in diameter at its smallest. What’s really interesting is that it can be altered through changes in pressure levels, which allows the sensation of different textures even while interacting with a single object or surface.
UltraHaptics has built several working prototypes with the technology and even demoed it at CES 2015 in Las Vegas. At this point in time, it’s working directly with a handful of clients who want to implement this tactile, invisible-surface feedback into their products.
Sadly, it seems like when we hear about technology like this, it’s years away from being introduced to the consumer market. However, Carter is enthusiastic that we may see it in the real world soon.
“We have everything from consumer electronics companies making things like speakers, radios, alarm clocks; through home appliance companies making cooker hoods, washing machines; to virtual reality in gaming companies. And we were very surprised at how keen the automotive industry is to work with us. I’d like to believe that the first product featuring our technology will be on the shelves in a year; that’s our aim.”