Japanese researchers have unveiled a new way of using focused sound waves to create virtual objects in mid-air, a technology that could have a major impact on the future development of videogame controls.
A major advancement in the integration of the sense of touch and computing, a field known as haptics, the new system was developed by a University of Tokyo team led by Takayuki Iwamoto. The device makes use of several “ultrasonic transducers,” which emit inaudible sound waves that can create focal points of pressure as they intermingle, creating a feeling of solid mass in empty space. The system in its current state can only produce a small vertical force, but the team is working on improving the design of the device to increase the feeling of stiffness as well as to allow more more contoured objects. The device holds particular potential for videogames and 3-D modeling software, and Iwamoto said he’d received “several proposals from industrial companies” during a demonstration last month in California.
“You can feel it with both hands, rather than having just a single point of contact, and multiple people can use it at the same time,” said Professor Stephen Brewster of the University of Glasgow, a haptics researcher who called the system “the first of its kind.”
“The kinds of things we [currently] use are connected through mechanical arms, or you’re wearing some kind of exoskeleton,” he continued. “It’s great to have something that you can just walk up and use and not need any other kind of hardware you have to hold or wear.”
The only drawback to the technology is that excess sound pressure could cause the ultrasound waves to scatter, which could potentially cause hearing damage. As a result, there are limits to how hard or stiff objects created by the technology can be. A video of the technology in action can be seen on YouTube.