Ultrahaptic Magic

Yet another project that is just plain jaw dropping. (My jaw is getting sore from all this dropping.)

For a decade and more, haptic interfaces have been coming along, pushing (get it?) the envelope of digital interfaces that enable you to feel the shape and texture of virtual objects. Everyone with a smartphone has options for “haptic” notification, but this is just a buzzer—baby stuff!

There are gloves and other wearables which are programmed to push on human skin, which can be programmed to push just like an object would—so you can feel the thing you see on the screen or 3D goggles.

Even more amazing are contactless systems that project the touch into the environment. (E.g., this or this One technology to achieve this is ultrasound: focused ultrasound creates pressure in the air, which the human skin can feel. Wow! Very spooky.

This research has examined what you need to do to “fool” the skin. What pattern of touch makes something feel smooth, rough, soft, furry? It turns out that this is quite doable, though sophisticated textures require not only fine spatial resolution, but also very fast changes in time.

Research out of the University of Bristol is coming to market  next year.  Rapid technical advances has pushed the refresh rate to 10,000 frames per second, and a range of 10 centimeters or more. This is good enough to project buttons and other objects to be handled.

No gloves, just bare hands! Cool!

Combined with motion tracking, this technology can be used in VR to let you feel the objects you are touching. The company also has ideas about “touchless” buttons, e.g., in hospitals, or for controlling a kitchen range without touching any surfaces.

The development kit (coming Real Soon Now) includes a “Sensation Editor”, which sounds intriguing!

This technology is a bit bulky for wearables yet, but lets think about smart clothing. The inner layer will be smart fabric which is both functional (wicking away moisture, keeping comfortable temperature) and also programmed for luxurious textures—the feel of silk lining and mink collar, digitally simulated.

But the outer side of the garment is programmable for appearance and also projects textures several hand widths out from the garment with ultrasound. It feels like silk to me on the inside, but the outside feels like sealskin, or ivory, or granite, or bare skin.


And if I don’t want you to touch me, I switch to jagged broken glass. Hands off, nerd boy!


A less desirable application would be a form of digital torture. If the VR can project buttons and “bubbles”, then it can also project ticklish or pricklish or just plain weird sensations. Combined with confusing and alarming visual and auditory sensations; mismatched with the haptics; you could make a pretty unpleasant situation. Add in physiological sensors, and the system could carefully tune the torture to maximize discomfort and stress.

What about the elephant in the room: digital sex play?

Well, there are certainly some uses for this kind of stimulation, e.g., some people might be excited by the artificial feeling of being slathered with chocolate syrup or whatever, without the mess to clean up. And obviously, being caressed by invisible or virtual fingers, tongues, etc. could be interesting in some situations.

But I’m thinking that the most interesting kinds of intimate touch are mutual, skin against skin. So, I look forward to the first demo of two-way ultrahaptics.

This can surely be done: track the movements of two people, modeling how their skin is touching, and project the relevant textures. With the option to augment the sensations, and to track the excitement of both “players”. Imagine autotune for holding hands…. I note that besides spatial and temporal granularity, latency will be deeply important—slight delays in the signal will be maddening!

This will let you touch each other across the internet—though latency will probably limit the effects.

Er. Um. I think I’m wandering a bit here.

Cool stuff, and there are way, way more interesting uses than virtual knobs on your car radio!

2 thoughts on “Ultrahaptic Magic”

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