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The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation

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Conjuring touch from thin air

Our interaction with machines has progressed from tapping keys to control a computer, to waving a hand. An EU-funded project is developing technology that helps manufacturers apply the next step – mid-air virtual controls that you can touch.

While it is already possible to control a machine by gesture, today’s technologies lack the sense of touch that confirm interaction. A virtual tactile interface – developed by UK firm Ultrahaptics – adds the feel of mid-air buttons, switches and controls, using ultrasonic waves.

“This could revolutionise the way we interact with machines,” says Ultrahaptics CEO Steve Cliffe. The UTOUCH project is supporting Ultrahaptics as it develops an adaptable form of the technology that other manufacturers can integrate into their own products.

Virtual haptic control systems can allow a driver to change radio station while keeping their eyes on the road, or a cook to control a stove top quickly without having to touch it.

Strong interest in the technology from car, computer and electronics companies has already raised private funds for Ultrahaptics to develop bespoke applications for some businesses. And in November 2015, the company raised GBP 10.1 million to grow the business in its first major round of venture capital financing (Series A round).

Through the EU-supported UTOUCH project, the company will now design ready-made modules, such as touchless buttons, and kits for developing haptic controls, allowing other businesses to build tactile virtual controls.

Funding is from the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument, which supports small and medium-sized businesses taking innovations to market that could change technology use.

“Our dream is to become the machine interface of choice in all aspects of our lives,” says Cliffe.

On the right wavelength

Invented by Ultrahaptics founder Tom Carter when he was still a research student, the technology stems from a combination of computer science, ultrasonic technology and studies of human-computer interfaces.

It uses standard low-frequency ultrasound speakers to focus sound waves onto fixed points which can be formed into shapes. When people touch these ultrasound shapes, the collected waves reflect off the skin, vibrating it and creating sensation.

No equipment is needed to interact with the invisible ultrasound shapes, which give feedback corresponding to the user’s actions. This creates virtual controls that people can feel – as though they were really there.

The technology can create different textures and sensations. “You can make each control button feel different – fluffy or hard, for example,” says Cliffe. Ultimately the ultrasound speakers could be small enough to be embedded in smartphone and tablets, according to Ultrahaptics.

A patent has already been granted for one part of the technology, and more patents are awaiting approval. The technology is unique to Ultrahaptics, says Cliffe. “We see a large number of technology licensing opportunities worldwide.”

By diffusing development of the haptic control system, UTOUCH intends to accelerate its adoption, which could help other European sectors, such as the car industry, keep abreast of potential new selling points.

Cliffe predicts that the core adaptable system should be ready by the end of 2016. “The Commission money will develop the product to market and scale the business. This accelerates the business by three years. It is incredibly helpful.”

The ultimate goal is for development to be cheap enough to develop a virtual light switch. “If we can make a light switch that is economically viable, we will have succeeded in this programme.”

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