Ultrahaptics lets you touch what you see in virtual and augmented reality, or even give a 2D poster 3D feeling. It uses small speaker-like ultrasound wave emitters to give the sensation of pressure and texture when you’re just waving your hands in the open air.
Ultrahaptics CTO Tom Carter demoed the technology onstage today at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Berlin conference. It feels like some combination of static electricity from laundry, a fan and heavy bass without the sound.
He showed how he could allow you to feel a movie poster you pass on the street. In his demo, you could wave your hands in front of a Star Wars: The Last Jedi poster, and touch “the force” — a tingly feeling synced to a lightsaber sound and animation of crackling energy on the poster’s screen.
The startup has raised around $38 million to bring the ultrasound technology to market. It could eventually be built into VR headsets or tabletop models.
Carter claims that the technology is totally safe, which you’d hope, considering ultrasound is how we do imaging of babies in the womb. The technology could compete with alternative ways to feel virtual reality, like Tactical Haptics’ Reactive Grip product — a controller with moving surfaces that rub against your hands to give the impression of a fish tugging on a line or you stretching a piece of rubber.
For now, Ultrahaptics can only let you feel a vague sensation of touch, but it’s working on letting you sense different textures, too. Unfortunately, ultrasound won’t ever be strong enough to make it seem like you’re actually holding a complex virtual object like a gun while playing a first-person shooter game. But it could still let you interact with virtual reality or augmented reality without the need for gloves or wearables.
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Long-term, Carter imagines cars using the technology to deliver non-distracting information to a driver. And eventually, he believes ultrasound will be paired with voice technology. You’ll be able to sift through data or navigate interfaces with voice, but then touch or manipulate what you call up.
Virtual reality has taken a lot longer to “arrive” than many people expected. Headset penetration is pretty low, great experiences are somewhat scarce and augmented reality that better integrates into life is starting to eclipse VR. But as VR and AR mature, technology like Ultrahaptics could boost immersion and reduce the feeling that you’re divorced from the real world.