Turn your hand into a magic wand

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Making things happen by just the wave of your hand is no longer the prerogative of magicians. Soon we will of turn appliances on and off without touching them, playing computer games by simply moving a hand in mid-air, and swiping the air in an elevator to choose the level we want to go to.

The technology that is making this possible is called ultrahaptics. The term ‘ultrahaptics’ is derived from ‘haptics’ - any form of interaction involving touch - and ultrasound technology. The startup by the same name came about as a result of research done at The University of Bristol in the UK. Mark Carter, a PhD student doing research into novel uses of ultrasound in the field of human-computer interaction, developed the system that involves mid-air haptic feedback without the need to wear haptic devices or to directly touch objects.

The unique technology provides tactile feedback through ultrasound that projects sensations through the air directly onto the user. The ultrasound emitters are linked to a camera that tracks hand movement. Users are convinced that they are touching a button, or running water, but what they’re actually feeling are bits of ultrasound projected onto their fingers.

Carter, Ultrahaptics CTO, was awarded the National Microelectronics Institute's Young Engineer of Year award at the annual NMI Awards dinner and ceremony in November 2015. The NMI awards showcase excellence within the UK and Ireland's Electronic Systems industry, rewarding the innovation, expertise and ambition of businesses. Carter was recognised for developing the unique mid-air touch technology, founding Ultrahaptics, and closing a round of £10.1 million ($14.4 million). In the same month Carter was named Electronics Weekly’s “Rising Star – New Engineer of the Year” at the 2015 Elektra awards, which recognise excellence in Europe’s electronics industry.

The potential of the mid-air haptic technology has caught the attention of the automobile industry. Ultrahaptics is working with Jaguar Land Rover to investigate the development of a mid-air touch system for its Predictive Infotainment Screen. Safety is compromised when drivers take their eyes off the road to reach for controls. The Ultrahaptics technology can locate and track the driver’s hand as it moves across the interactive field with the system locking on to the hand’s movement and creating a physical sensation to indicate connection and button presses. This means the driver can feel virtual objects such as switches and buttons without having to reach fully to the touchscreen. The haptic feedback lets the driver ‘feel’ the action in mid-air.

Other applications for the haptic feedback technology that have been put forward include adjusting the temperature of a stove plate, switching a dial to change a TV station, etc. by simply swiping a hand in the air. In addition to the automobile industry, makers of kitchen appliances and computer companies have shown an interest in Ultrahaptics’ technology.

Ultrahaptics could in theory develop a switch or a dial that could be triggered by someone’s hand, even if it shook, Carter told the Guardian. “From the offset we can design all of the interfaces to be universally accessible to everybody and by keeping that in mind you can cover everybody from the elderly to the fully able, children, people with Parkinson’s disease and the blind. These devices can be made so that everyone can use them in the same way.”

The buttons in hospital elevators, known to swarm with bacteria, could also be simulated so they don’t have to be touched, limiting the spreading of disease, Ultrahaptics CEO Steve Cliffe told the Guardian.