Feeling without touching – the shape of things to come

Want to change radio stations safely while you’re driving? Don’t like the idea of touching a germ-laden button to call the lift in a hospital? Crave a fully immersive gaming experience where you not only see and hear your virtual environment but can touch it too? Research at Sussex may have the solution, enabling you to connect and interact with technology like never before.

Sriram Subramanian

Sri Subramanian, Professor of Informatics at Sussex.

Sri Subramanian, Professor of Informatics at Sussex, is leading a team working with mid-air haptics – technology that manipulates sound to give the user the sensation of touch without actually touching. “If you’ve ever been to a rock concert, you’ll have felt the music vibrating in your chest,” says Sri. “It’s the sounds at low frequencies (the bass notes) that really get us. Rather than using the bass sounds, what we do is focus ultrasound in air and when you put your hand at the focal point, you feel a sensation. It’s quite pinpointed and precise.” And by focusing complex patterns of ultrasound from a specially designed pad, the air disturbances can be manipulated into floating 3D shapes that can be felt.

Crucially, what Sri’s haptic technology does is give tactile sensory feedback. So, when you push a virtual button you can be sure that the button has actually been pushed, and the feedback also allows you fine motor control of an object. This has great potential for virtual- and augmented-reality technologies, which have previously given users the experience of vision and sound, but lacked the sensation of touch.

Another key advantage is that the technology comes to you rather than you having to go to it. This has huge appeal to car manufacturers as it allows drivers to interact much more safely with devices in their cars than was previously possible, from fiddling with the in-car entertainment system to programming the sat nav or opening the sun roof. “Touchless technology wasn’t a viable option for car manufacturers until they saw our tech,” says Sri. “Now, all the safety boxes get ticked for them.” 

Asked what drives him, Sri is clear. “I want to create this magical experience for people by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. I also want my lab to lead the way in this area. It’s a jungle out there and we want to light some beacons for people. So much of what we do is about engagement and not just with our industrial partners and through talks at conferences.”

Sri’s Interact Lab organises open days with ‘hackathons’ where anyone can come along, get the kit and have a tutorial. They’re then free to take the kit away, experiment on their own and bring it back in to get feedback. “It’s a brilliant opportunity,” says Sri. “They get to engage with the research and we get to see what people will do if you democratise access to the tech. It’s not about doing research in a vacuum.” And the rewards of this kind of engagement are huge, as the Lab gets postdocs and researchers from all around the world who come and spend time at Sussex. For example, Sri had a visitor from the Japanese patent office who spent a sabbatical in his lab. “He was here because they wanted to know what it’s like to be in a cutting-edge place like ours. Knowledge exchange like that is invaluable.”


Interact Lab

Find out more about the Interact Lab.


Last updated: 26 April 2017


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