In the realm of Tony Stark, computer displays appear spontaneously in mid-air on command, without any physical display device being required. Stark uses his hands to interact with this high-tech interface, all the while touching nothing tangible. It’s no secret that we’re already on the brink of taking this sort of tech from the movies into real life, but how do we make it even better? Enter ultrahaptics, which uses sound waves to create the sensation of touch when no touch is actually present.
With an ultrahaptic device, ultrasound transducers create sound waves at a high frequency. These waves create isolated changes in air pressure that mimic the sensation of touch. No contact with a physical object is necessary. A research team at the University of Bristol recently demonstrated how the system works with a display that projects the sound waves. A user interacts with items on the display by using his hands several feet above it, but he feels as if he is actually touching the display as vibrations reach the fingertips. By changing that vibration, the team discovered that they can create different sensations, making the air the user is touching feel like it has texture, and even creating the sensation of raised areas and edges.
Ultrahaptics could also be used on smartphones. The current haptic feedback on a phone is more annoying than useful, but this new technology could make a touchscreen phone respond to touch as if it had a physical keyboard. This could also be used in video games for technologies like Microsoft Kinect, where a user interacts with a display, but does not feel anything. Imagine playing a soccer game on the Xbox and feeling the vibration of kicking the ball on your foot when you do the actual movement: the technology is here now, and getting into our gadgets is just a matter of miniaturization, cost reduction, and time.