Friday, 16 July 2010

Haptics: The Next Big Thing for Virtual Worlds?

Some recent advances give us a clue what might next be in store for Virtual World and 3D Virtual gaming development in the not too-distant future, and they all centre around Haptics, the tactile feedback technology that applies forces, vibrations, mild electric shocks,  and/or motions to the user, to simulate the sense of touch. Here are some examples of the direction Haptic Technology has gone in recently.

The Holodeck
Fans of Star Trek will be quite familiar with the holodeck, depicted as an enclosed room in which objects and people are simulated by a combination of replicated matter, tractor beams, and shaped force fields onto which holographic images are projected, so the user appears to be in a nightclub, an alien world, their home planet, etc. Now, replicated matter, tractor beams and shaped force fields may be definitely science fiction, for now, but holographic images that can be touched are no longer in that realm, as of now, they are science fact.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo demonstrated the principles of Touchable Holography at the SIGGRAPH2009  exhibition in New Orleans last August. As they said at the time:

Recently, mid-air displays are attracting a lot of attention in the fields of digital signage and home TV, and many types of holographic displays have been proposed and developed. Although we can "see" holograhpic images as if they are really floating in front of us, we cannot "touch" them, because they are nothing but light.

This project adds tactile feedback to the hovering image in 3D free space. Tactile sensation requires contact with objects, but including a stimulator in the work space dilutes the appearance of holographic images. The Airborne Ultrasound Tactile Display solves this problem by producing tactile sensation on a user's hand without any direct contact and without diluting the quality of the holographic projection.
By using a non-linear property of ultrasound, called acoustic radiation pressure, the researchers were able to replicate the sensation of touch when a user placed his hand beneath a holographic ball, and even produced the sensation of splashes when a hand was placed beneath holographic raindrops. They really did feel like they were splashing onto the user's hand.

I think I know where this technology will head to. How long before the first holographic boyfriend or girlfriend makes its debut, 1 year, 2 years?

Transparent Touch Screens
Remember those amazing touchable computer graphics on glass screens in the hit movie Avatar last year? Science fact caught up with that science fiction with indecent haste. Before the end of the year Intel were demonstrating such a screen at CES 2009. This amazing screen, powered by the i7 processor, was capable of rendering almost 1 million polygons in real time.

I want one! Make that 2!

Touch Screens that Touch Back
One of the leading pioneers of haptics is the Russian scientist Dr Ivan Poupyrev, currently senior researcher at Disney Research Labs. In an article carried by the BBC last week he explained that:

The basic goal of the technology we are developing at Disney is to create a perception of texture - to let people 'feel' objects on screen by stroking them with their fingers.

We do this by applying a high voltage to a transparent electrode on the glass plate - in this case people will feel a texture on the glass. By varying the frequency and amplitude of the signal we can create different sensations.

The results can recreate the feeling of paper or a textile, simulate the smoothness of glass and even the roughness of sand paper.
While the aim of the current research is more focussed on handheld mobile devices, the scope for this technology in larger PC screens has not gone un-noticed.

Another leading light in this field is Esterline Technologies that are already offering vibration feedback technology to the medical, defense, and gaming industries, enabling display screens to give the sensation of touching back when pressed.

The advances in this industry never cease to amaze me.