Touch-less haptics leverage ultrasound for feedback - Embedded.com

Touch-less haptics leverage ultrasound for feedback

Sometimes I need a good smack on the forehead, and Ultrahaptics may have just the ticket. By combining off-the-shelf ultrasound hardware with proprietary software, the company has developed a means of adding touch-less haptics to gesture recognition and control systems, which can likely be adapted to project that smack to my head.

To a large extent, we’re dependent upon sight, sound, and direct touch when it comes to engaging with electronic systems, to the point that we’re dangerously close to overloading those senses, so we start to tune them out.

For example, when reversing down my sloping driveway, a number of alarms, dings, or pings could be going off at any one time: from the reversing alarm, the sometimes overly sensitive side and rear object detection radar, to my phone, which may be ringing or sending text or social media notifications. It all becomes very tune-outable.

This isn’t good, as one really important alarm needs noting – the handbrake. Yes, as painful as it is to admit it, I sometimes leave the handbrake on as the car just rolls down the driveway anyway, and the friction isn’t noticeable. Neither is the handbrake alarm or the little tiny red light, mostly because I’m too busy looking behind so as not to kill anyone.

I have often wondered why they don’t make the handbrake alert a big trumpet blast instead of a little “ding, ding,” like all the other ding dings that we sooner or later learn to tune out. Doesn’t it deserve a special sound? Even better, how about a little flick on the forehead?

This is just one, albeit somewhat personalized, application of a fascinating new haptic feedback technology that is ripe for your next holographic imaging, hand gesture tracking, or medical or automotive device interface.

Developed by Tom Carter, chief technology officer and founder of Ultrahaptics, the technology uses focused ultrasound to stimulate the surface of the skin to, for example, simulate the feel of “clicks” when turning a dial. Ultrahaptics is typically combined with gesture recognition to track the hand and discern exactly where to project the ultrasound.

The haptic system works by first determining the location of the hand using available gesture recognition technology. Then, using proprietary software it drives an array of classic off-the-shelf, 40-kHz, ultrasound emitters to focus the sound image at exactly the right point on the hand or finger to provide the required sensation. The current kit can focus on a fingertip up to a meter away, with the limitation being the accuracy of the tracking solution.  “We have simulations that can target a fingertip up to 2 meters away,” said Carter.

Figure 1 The Ultrahaptics system provides the odd sensation of touch in mid air where nothing is present, providing opportunities for applications in industrial, automotive, medical, and virtual reality systems.

If you haven’t gathered by now, the key advantage here is that you get haptic feedback, without actually touching anything. “Every other haptic has to be touched,” said Carter. “The premier advantage is you don’t have to get dressed [with a special outfit], or put on gloves. This has lots of advantages for gesture.”

Figure 2 Something as simple as a knob on an oven can be replaced by a projected image with haptic feedback.

Hitting me on the forehead wasn’t one of the ones Carter had in mind (yet), but cars and medical applications are very much at the forefront of adoption. “Cars have a huge amount of functionality and we tend to do four or five things at a time, but the brain processes the sense of touch much quicker and with lower [brain] power required, and it processes it faster.”

Being able to turn a dial on a dashboard and knowing how far and how fast you’re turning it is nice, but being able to control a medical instrument or refer to a computer without having to change in and out of clothing or gloves can be a life saver, literally. That’s one of the other key applications of non-touch haptics, given how easily infections are transmitted in hospitals, touching things is almost a phobia.

Carter related one story where a doctor confessed he often managed to avoid touching elevator buttons in his hospital by walking into the elevator authoritatively and saying aloud, “4th floor please.” This of course prompts someone else to press what is in fact the most bacteriologically infected button in the whole hospital. Clever doctor.

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