New haptic technology moves away from physical touch controls

Soon enough the world may be literally “at your fingertips”, thanks to new haptic technology that aims to eliminate physical controls in everything from cars to dishwashers. Companies like Ultrahaptic are making strides toward this future, where we control our devices through motions as simple as tapping a finger in mid-air. 


Imagine a world without a stick shift or a volume knob, but with machines that can be controlled through natural motions that hit ultrasonic “hotspots” in the air.  


How does it work? 


This idea is made possible by using complicated algorithms to manipulate ultrasound waves. These waves are condensed into invisible buttons or hotspots that we cannot see, but can feel. The waves can then be arranged in a way that makes multiple invisible buttons distinguishable to the touch. 


No weird or awkward equipment is necessary to interact with this new virtual reality technology, making it practical and appealing for everyday use. 


Downfalls and possibilities 


A slight buzzing sound emitted by the ultrasound waves is an annoyance researchers are currently trying to eliminate. Another slight flaw in Ultrahaptic’s technology is that it is “tactile”, meaning your hand can move through it. 


Other haptic virtual reality technologies, labelled as “forced”, use equipment that restricts the wearer’s range of motion, so as to create the illusion of the virtual object being impenetrable. But if we are trying to integrate virtual reality into our everyday routines, wearing physical gear may be impractical. 


Given its convenience, the equipment-less nature of this haptic technology makes it all the more exciting despite its flaws. Of course, the technology itself also makes for seemingly endless possibilities. 


In future, this haptic technology could be used for things as novel as giving an online shopper the ability to feel the texture of the sweater they are about to buy. It may also play a part in vehicle development, using tactile sensations to guide drivers so they can focus on driving itself rather than navigation. 


“Just before you are supposed to make a turn,” suggests one article, “plates on the wheel vibrate under your fingers. The closer you  get, the faster and greater the magnitude of the vibration.” 


With this new technology in place, the way we interact with the devices we use in daily life will become more seamless and effortless. The structure of the appliances and electronics we use every day may even develop a completely different look and style in the next decade. 


Will this new technology put us out of touch with reality? Or will it give us a new sense of instinctual control over technology—one that that makes navigating everyday life easier? We may soon find out.

Forecasted start year: 
2020 to 2035


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