One Day, You’ll Reach Out to Touch a Virtual Object and It’ll Feel Real


When it comes to creating a truly immersive environment, one of the central challenges for virtual-reality systems like Oculus Rift is incorporating the sense of touch. Separate devices for VR haptics exist, but buying gloves, or even a vest, to feel virtual worlds is hardly an elegant solution. That’s why the solution proposed by Ultrahaptics is making so much noise.

The British company’s technology uses focused ultrasound to create sound waves that have a tactile sensation. Think of the buzz in your chest you feel as the bass thumps at a concert. Now imagine if that same feeling was refined and targeted, allowing you to feel specific shapes anywhere on your body. That’s what Ultrahaptics is doing.

For now, the sound waves come out of a small pad and can be altered to feel like different shapes — a sphere or cone, for example. Obviously, you can’t see the waves, which is why Ultrahaptics and VR displays are such a natural fit. “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,” says Sriram Subramanian, who helped develop the technology at the University of Bristol.

Ultrahaptics chief technology officer Tom Carter told Mashable that virtual-reality integration is the “holy grail” for his company. But the closer-to-reality applications involve using tactile sound sensations for gesture-controlled devices. For example, Volkswagen introduced gesture control on its Golf R Touch concept car at CES. Rolling down windows, turning on headlights, and opening the sunroof require just a swipe of the fingers through the air. But systems like that are often criticized for lacking the tactile sensation we’re used to — that's where Ultrahaptics believes it can help. An invisible button that feels like a real button is much easier to push, and an invisible knob that feels like a knob is easier to turn with precision.

The first product to incorporate the Ultrahaptics technology could be an alarm clock, Carter told Mashable. “The alarm goes off and you just wave your hand out into a general area and it could project feeling onto your hand, and you could tap or swipe, and it would allow you to snooze,” he said. The hope is to have something like that available in the next couple of years.