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How new haptics tech will move you

Mike Elgan | April 28, 2015
The illusion of haptic vibrations is magnified when combined with other factors. Call it 'haptics plus.'

Using air as the haptics medium

It's clear that we're on the brink of a revolution in virtual reality and augmented reality. Google's Cardboard, Facebook's Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap's technology are all steps toward making VR and AR mainstream.

Both VR and AR create the illusion that objects and environments that exist only in software are actually there in front of you, and all around you.

While binocular screen views will provide the 3D visual illusions, and speakers or headphones will create the audio illusions, haptics will let you touch what isn't there.

The default assumption for how this will work is that it will involve the delivery of touch sensations through special gloves. A few companies have already demonstrated haptic glove products for the Oculus Rift.

Recently, a British company called Ultrahaptics came up with a way to create VR touch illusions without gloves. It does that by using air as the medium that conducts the haptic vibrations.

If you've ever been to a very loud concert, you know that sound can be felt. Ultrahaptics uses ultrasonics, or sound that you can't hear because it's outside the range of human hearing, to create haptic touch sensations.

Ultrahaptics uses a specially designed pad to create sound in the neighborhood of 40kHz, which is too low to hear. So if there's a virtual object in front of you while you're using virtual- or augmented-reality goggles, you'll be able to "feel" its edges and surfaces if you reach out and try to touch it.

In its prototype, Ultrahaptics uses the Leap Motion controller to determine the exact location of your hands and fingers. When they come into contact with the visual illusion, precise blasts of inaudible sound give a sense of precise touch to only those parts of your hands that would be touching the virtual object.

Combining the idea of haptics with the medium of air creates a haptic illusion without direct contact or the wearing of bulky gloves.

This idea would be especially great not only for video games, but also for control interfaces. Just as Apple is using haptics on its new laptops to tell your brain you clicked the touchpad, Ultrahaptics will enable holographic control systems that will use airborne haptic feedback to inform your brain that you have successfully completed a simple gesture, such as moving to the next slide or changing the channel.

The Apple Watch and the latest Apple laptops are introducing consumers to the next big thing in haptic feedback -- combining vibration with something else to make more convincing illusions.

But this is just the beginning of a new generation of enhancements to haptic technology. Our interaction with gadgets and computers will not only become more touchy-feely, but also more intimate and satisfying.

 

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