Ultrahaptics is a concept that, to a science ignoramus, doesn’t make a whole lot of intuitive sense. The eyes and ears can easily be fooled, with tricks of perspective and sound design. But how would you get someone to feel something that isn’t there, with their hands? Something out of nothing, if you will.
“We use ultrasound,” explains Tom Carter, Co-Founder and Director of Ultrahaptics in Bristol. “The technology has a small number of speakers that emit ultrasound, and we focus it to a certain point or place or shape on your hand, and at that point what we do is just gently vibrate the surface of your skin. And you can feel that vibration.”
The result? A tactile response.
“We can change the vibration rate and textures, and we can make the place where you’re feeling the vibrations be a discrete point or a surface or even send it up towards 3D shapes as well. This means you can feel 3D objects floating in the air.
“We have a technology that allows you to feel without touching”
“So we have a technology that allows you to feel without touching. The concept is that anywhere you can use gesture or touch to control a computer or a system, Ultrahaptics will provide tactile feedback so you can feel what you’re doing.”
Getting a feel for it
Tom founded Ultrahaptics with Professor Sriram Subramanian and Dr Ben Long in November 2013. It began as a research project at the University of Bristol, and spun out into a company that looks for viable applications in the technology market.
“I originally started on it back doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol,” says Tom. “It was a degree in Computer Science. And in the final year you have to do a research project and find a supervisor for your research project, and I came along this idea of Ultrahaptics with Professor Sriram Subramanian, another one of the co-founders of the company. We kicked off my project, got it all working and spent the last six months of my degree working on it.
“At the end of that I thought, this is a really cool technology; it could have loads of potential uses and could genuinely become a company. So at that point I decided to enrol, do a PhD with Sriram to continue developing technology, and make it more ready to come out into its own company.
“When you talk about the concept, and see people using the tech, the initial reactions are a mixture of surprise and awe.”
“Along the way we picked up Ben [also credited in the final paper, ‘Ultrahaptics: Multi-Point Mid-Air Haptic Feedback for Touch Surfaces‘, are Sue Ann Seah and Bruce Drinkwater], and then by November of last year, the technology was material enough, and we had enough interest, that we formed a company and spun it out of the university.”
Sounding out the market
When you talk about the concept, and see people using the tech, the initial reactions are a mixture of surprise and awe. This is real bleeding-edge technology. But tech is nothing without purpose, so how can Ultrahaptics be implemented commercially?
“The main target market for us is automotive consumer electronics and home appliances,” says Tom, “and the kind of thing that we want to see happen is getting rid of products covered in lots of buttons and complicated interfaces where every time you get a new product, you’ve got to relearn how it works.”
The aim is simplification and elegance: “Being able to make a really nice-looking device not all covered in buttons, but that will look nice in your home, that you can hold your hand out in front of, and just feel the controls and control without touching.
Technical wizardry: Arrays of transducers converting energy to ultrasound. (Credit: Tom Carter.)
“We’re not planning on launching our own product, what we want to see is products in the next couple of years with Ultrahaptics technology embedded in them. And products developed so that wherever you have touchscreen devices, Ultrahaptics makes the whole experience better and more efficient.”
The company is already on a roll, and interest is tangible. On 13 November, Ultrahaptics closed a £600,000 seed round of investment. A couple of weeks earlier, they won our “From chips to…” SPARKies award for most innovative use of hardware, as judged by a panel of tech sector high-flyers.
“There’s a really good technology and creative community in Bristol so we’ve got the best of both worlds”
They also recently completed their evaluation programme, for testing out the technology’s capabilities.
“We developed a raw hardware device, a software suite with demos and control applications, and an API,” Tom explains. “People can get one of these and they can experiment with the technology, find out what it can do, demo it around to other people in their lab, and really evaluate the technology and work out what it can be used for.
“So we’ve been working on this for most of this year – five months, six months, I’d say. We launched that last month and we just shipped our first two kits. Quite a big achievement for us.”
Like many technology companies, Ultrahaptics has found the city of Bristol amenable to experimentation, and helpful for evaluating product potential.
“There’s a really good technology and creative community in Bristol so we’ve got the best of both worlds. We’ve got a big pool of talent for hiring, but also, in terms of engineering and electronics development, we’ve got people who can look at different ways the technology could be used that’s outside of what you’re thinking.
“There’s a huge community here who are super eager to jump on the technology and teach you everything you don’t know.”
Hungry for data: An early version of the Ultrahaptics API. (Credit: Tom Carter.)
So when can the rest of us get our hands on it (or above it)?
“Right now it’s a little difficult, mainly because we’re still very early stage and very small and we’re pretty overloaded with the evaluation programme,” says Tom. “In the future there’s going to be a whole load of opportunities for people to get involved in a whole bunch of different ways which we have planned. But I can’t say anything about those yet. Watch this space, I guess!”
Many thanks to Tom for taking the time to chat with us. You can keep up-to-date with company developments at ultrahaptics.com, or on Twitter @ultrahaptics. Tom can also be found on Twitter @iamtomcarter.
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