Mass Illusion

Ultrasonic Haptics Could Provide the Next Wow Factor

Ultrasonic_haptics_lMultitouch displays didn’t happen overnight — they were the result of a long process, and some companies caught the potential earlier than others. From products developed by Mitsubishi in the early years of this century to Jeff Han’s renowned presentation at a TED conference a few years later, the word was out that multitouch input could wow an audience. But could it be used in real-world consumer products? Yes, yes it could. So where’s the next wow?

One of the more interesting of recent user interface developments is a non-touch touch approach. Start-up Ultrahaptics, a spin-off from Bristol University, is researching a technique that uses ultrasound to create haptics in mid-air. CCS Insight believes this could be one of the potential long-term replacements or enhancements to many interfaces implemented today.

It’s a delusional technology — there’s a feeling of something when there’s practically nothing. No mass, no screen, no wearables, no strings attached. Virtual objects float in the air, and can be felt and manipulated to become part of a device’s user interface.

The method relies on ultrasound to create “free-space haptics” that provide the user with tactile feedback above the emitting generators. The technology could be used to float buttons, be used in games and movies to simulate sensations or be used in training videos of various sorts. The false object can’t currently be seen, but the ultrasonic generators could eventually be coupled with projectors or other displays to create touchable holograms. Ultrahaptics uses a Leap Motion sensor to support gesture input.

This interface variation is unlikely to go mobile soon given power and space requirements, but it could affect environments where ultrasonic generators could access a steady power supply — such as in cars and for PCs.

Ultrahaptics isn’t the only company developing a user interface out of thin air. Disney, for example, has demoed an accessory that shoots air to create the haptic feel. However, Ultrahaptics has given the most impressive version to date. There’s a touch of magic to the product, and this could be the look and feel of the next user interface generation.