New Ultrasound Technology Allows Users to Touch VR Objects


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Virtual reality headsets can fool your eyes and brain. Controllers may allow you to pick up objects and sensors may let you see your fingers. You can try to touch a VR generated object but no sensation will be felt.

However British company Ultrahaptics has developed a technology that enables users to receive tactile sensations from 3D object from within VR. Ultrahaptics uses ultrasound to precisely project sensations through the air allowing the user to "feel" and interact with VR objects.

Professor Sriram Subramanian, who co-developed the haptic technology at the University of Bristol's Computer Science Department, explained that their device applies the principles of acoustic radiation force, whereby sound waves produce forces on the skin which are strong enough to generate tactile sensations.

If you go to a night club or a rock concert, you feel the music in your chest. And it's the same principal - you feel the sound vibrating your chest. And instead of using the bass sounds, what we use is low frequency ultrasound - about 40 kHz - and that way we can target it at a precise point on your finger tip or on your palm, and then you feel the palm vibrate and it feel precise as well.

The Bristol-based company recently announced the closing of a £600,000 (approx. 900,000 USD) seed round of investment. The financing allowed the company to accelerate the development of the Ultrahaptic device, including substantially improving the computing power and performance of the technology.

Typically what we've done is try to create one focal point at a time. And that's been computationally quite expensive until now. What we've doubled up right now is a way we can speed up this process substantially. And that means that, instead of doing one at a time, I can do hundreds at a time. And when I do hundreds at a time and put a hundred focal points around your finger tip or around your palm, those hundred feel like a circle. And if I track your palm and move them up and down, and if I change the diameter of these focal points, you start feeling like you are going through a sphere. And this is how we generate shapes.

The team's device is still in the prototype stage, they believe it has a diverse range of potential real world applications; with touchable holograms, immersive virtual reality that you can feel and complex touchable controls in mid-air all possible applications of the system. They say it could even enable surgeons to explore a CT letting them to feel a disease, such as a tumour, using haptic feedback.

You can see the object and maybe you can interact with this object visually, but you don't feel anything. What we're offering is that missing feeling these holographic objects. That I think is the crucial distinction as well as the advantage of what we're offering. 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. This gives you better finesse, control.
There is a tendency towards doing things touchless. One of the advantages of having a touchless system is that the interaction comes to you; instead of going and touching the light switch, you just wave your hand and the light comes on. And this is going to be ubiquitous, and as it becomes ubiquitous people are going to need this kind of tactile feedback.

I can only imagine what VR will be like 10 years from now. Amazing? I think so...