It sounds like science fiction, and perhaps it is: Researchers have found a way to generate invisible 3-D shapes in the air that can be felt by human hands. The technology, whose main use case is letting surgeons physically “feel” anomalies such as tumors in CT scans, could also revolutionize everything from advertising to architecture.
A team at the University of Bristol in Great Britain worked on the project, which uses complex ultrasound patterns to create air disturbances which can be felt by the human hand. Dr. Ben Long, one of the leaders of the research project, explained in a press release that “In the future, people could feel holograms of objects that would not otherwise be touchable, such as feeling the differences between materials in a CT scan or understanding the shapes of artifacts in a museum.” The shapes are generated by a special prototype device and are invisible to the naked eye–in order to see them, researchers had to aim the device at a thin layer of oil.
Although this particular iteration of the invisible 3-D shapes was designed strictly as an academic project, it’s also one of the most interesting use cases for haptics in years. Haptic response, where devices vibrate in response to touch and provide tactile feedback, is a design element in everything from Android phones to car steering wheels. Because the technology is currently relatively primitive in the mass market, it’s mainly used for more day-to-day purposes like simulating the feel of a tactile keyboard on a smartphone or simulating the shaking of an explosion in a specialized video game controller.
For developers working with haptic feedback and the organizations that back them, the Bristol experiment is an example of what’s possible. Within a decade, products could be developed which allow users to interact with virtual 3-D objects. If this works, a variety of industries could potentially have a whole new world of UI and UX technologies to play with.