Most smartphone users are familiar with the feeling: when you type in a number, you sense a vibration as soon as your fingertip touches the screen. This haptic feedback, to use the technical term, gives the smartphone user the illusion of operating a real keyboard.
This connection between the physical and digital worlds is something that some researchers and companies now want to bring to the next level. Mid-air haptic technology, as it’s called, should enable users to simultaneously feel what they otherwise only see in virtual reality or on a screen. If, for instance, someone wearing VR goggles comes into contact with water during a game, it should actually feel wet.
Mid-air haptics could be the next big thing in the field of digitization. The market research company VPA Research is currently predicting that the market volume for haptics will reach a total of 28 billion US dollars in 2026. In 2020, the market was estimated to have had sales of 13.8 billion dollars.
Andreas Noll, who researches haptic technologies at the Technical University Munich, explains how this novel technology works. “When you stroke a fabric, you feel a sort of vibration on the skin that feels differently depending on the texture,” he says. That’s exactly what mid-air haptic technology would take advantage of, except that the vibration would be artificially generated, usually with the help of ultrasonic waves.
These waves are generated by a number of ultrasonic speakers, each with a diameter of about a centimeter. These speakers could be installed either in a laptop or in some sort of tablet and connected to a computer or to VR goggles. If a hand gets close to the device, it can be detected using laser scanners or cameras. The sound waves from the speakers create pressure points on the skin that awaken the illusion in users that they are touching a particular surface.
One of the most well-known manufacturers working with haptic technology is Ultraleap. This British company is working together with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) on a joint research project, financed by the EU, with the name E-TEXTURES. The goal is to commercialize the technology and make it viable for a variety of applications.
Claudio Pacchierotti, who researches haptics at CNRS and is overseeing the project, can already picture countless potential areas of application: “For example, mid-air haptic technology could be useful for treating a variety of phobias such as arachnophobia, the fear of spiders,” he says. Using the ultrasonic waves and images of spiders via VR goggles, the patient should thereby get the impression of seeing and touching real spiders—as a sort of desensitization therapy. Other potential areas of use include online retail, where it would be possible via the technology for shoppers to feel the fabric of a piece of clothing rather than merely seeing an image. Especially for more expensive items, he explains, this is gentler on the garment than being handled by numerous customers in the shop.
“Mid-air haptic technology is useful whenever a person is supposed to feel an object but not actually touch it, or if we want add a new dimension to a visual or acoustic experience to make it more engaging and memorable,” Pacchierotti says.
But how far along is this technology to date? At the moment, he says that researchers are able to create the illusion of rain or snow on the skin, meaning moving particles. It’s also capable of creating the feelings of texture for a number of materials, although not yet all the materials we know. Despite this, Pacchierotti is confident in the future of haptics: “This won’t remain a niche technology.”