‘Touchable’ holograms could soon transform virtual reality

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Advancements from the University of Glasgow in 3D display technology have made steps towards more life-like, interactive holograms straight out of science fiction. The new technique, called ‘aerohaptics’, uses directed air jets to provide a sensation of touch as the user interacts with the hologram within the display.

The aerohaptic device uses ‘haptic feedback’, which means using touch to communicate with users. This principle is already used in a lot of technology today, for example, a smartphone vibrating when it receives a new notification. Led by Professor Ravinder Dahiya, the team of engineers tested the system using a 3D image of a basketball. This virtual ball could “be convincingly touched, rolled and bounced” within the volumetric display, as Dahiya told Glasgow Live. The aerohaptic device consists of a LeapMotion sensor, which tracks the movement of the user’s hands using infrared cameras, and an air nozzle that is finely tuned to deliver air to the area of the hand ‘touching’ the hologram. The pressure of the air is modulated according to the speed of the motion, so a faster ‘bounce’ results in a stronger flow of air whereas a slower ‘push’ of the ball provides weaker haptic feedback.

The ‘hologram’ itself is a variation on ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, a pseudo-holographic technique from the 19th century in which transparent screens are used to make a virtual object appear mid-air. Many will have seen this technique being used before, or have even made their own holograms using their phone screens in the same way. In this case, the screens were arranged in a square-based pyramid formation, with orthogonal views of the basketball at a 45° angle to each side, allowing the basketball to appear as if it were within the pyramid. Users could then reach through gaps in one of the sides of the pyramid and interact with the object.

This virtual ball could “be convincingly touched, rolled and bounced”

What makes the technique particularly attractive compared to conventional virtual reality and other competitors is the 360° viewing angle and “at-location” interaction with no need for peripheral devices such as VR headsets, handheld controllers or wearable tech. Future developments could lead to the introduction of temperature modulation and the use of the other senses, for example, scents, to add even more realism to the experience.

Whilst this news may be most exciting for fans of VR gaming, Professor Dahiya expressed the belief that aerohaptics could be useful in a wide variety of future technologies. Aerohaptics has the potential to be used for anything from truly interactive teleconferences (for those sick of speaking to blank screens on Zoom classes) to precise surgical training, or for fans of Star Trek, a real-life holodeck.

Image: Julien Tromeur via Unsplash

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