Magic

Ultrahaptics: Killing the button with Minority Report hand gestures

By Kitty Knowles 23 May 2017
Summary

In your car. In your kitchen. Ultrahaptics lets you feel objects that don't really exist.

Minority Report set our expectations high.

After watching it, we all figured that soon, just like Tom Cruise, we’d be waving our hands in mid-air to get shit done.

Now though, Ultrahaptics is making gesture control a reality: in your car, in your kitchen, everywhere.

“We’re better than Minority Report – you don’t have to wear gloves,” says co-founder Tom Carter.

So what is Ultrahaptics?

Carter came up with Ultrahaptics back in 2013, while studying at University of Bristol.

“Ultrahaptics lets you feel things in the air,” he explains. “We can make the sensations of buttons or switches, or enable you to feel 3D objects and sensations that don’t exist in the real world.”

The Memo tried out Ultrahaptics last month at VR World Congresss, and it really is an extraordinary experience.

You simply move your hands in the air (in front or above an Ultrahaptics pad, which could be any size), and this emits ultrasound in a way that allows you to feel shapes and vibrations.

Killing the button

Beyond being a bizarre, and rather wonderful, experience, Ultrahaptics is on a mission to make your life better – by killing the button.

“Buttons and controls they are static so they don’t change function,” Carter explains. They take up space, they’re inflexible, and ugly.

“Imagine a music player, where you can swipe sideways to skip a track, tap to stop, or slide up and down to change the volume,” says Carter.

“Aesthetically the device will look more pleasing, and the whole process is much easier.”

Better than voice controls

We know there’s a smart arse out there who’s going to say ‘haven’t voice commands already killed the button?’

“There are certain applications where voice is a very powerful, fast way to get pretty close to where you want to go,” says Carter. “But describing a specific action in voice is really clunky when you get down to those more intricate interactions.”

Just like in conversations, there are still some actions where touch is more instinctive and immediate.

“You still shake people’s hands, you still tap them on the shoulder to get their attention, you still give them a back pat if they’re doing something well,” says Carter.

Coming for your car – and your cooker

Already Carter has partnered with companies like Harman and Bosch to bring about the buttonless revolution.

“You’ll see it in cars, the ability to hold your hand out over the dashboard while you’re driving, feel buttons projected through the air without taking your eyes off the road,” Carter explains.

“You’ll see it in devices around the home where it might be useful to have a nice clean looking device.”

Virtually real

Where Ultrahaptics truly comes into its own however, is in immersive virtual reality experiences. Not only does it allow users to feel objects, but it can also add new layers of texture and feeling.

“It’s about being able to feel lightning bolts come out of your fingers, or the fireballs flying out of your hands,” Carter says. “It’s about having that extra layer of ‘do you believe this world that you’re in?'”

The ability to ‘feel’ in virtual reality will also supercharge VR training, VR art, VR therapy. Almost every virtual application benefits from have tactile possibilities – especially because there is no extra equipment needed, like haptic gloves or rings.

“People don’t want to get dressed to use something. It’s an incredibly big barrier to entry,” says Carter.

The future

To date Ultrahaptics has raised £28m in funding, including £17.9m earlier this month.

And the company’s already becoming an influential name on the virtual circuit, with several immersive installations lined up for this year.

Curious fans will start to see their kit in consumer products from 2018 (although they will be white labelled), with commercial vehicles in the pipeline for launch from the early 2020s.

“We’re not saying it’s the only interface you’ll ever use,” says Carter, “but you will see it in a lot of different places.”

“Ultrahaptics will proliferate into everybody’s lives.”