The TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced millions of people to the idea of a holodeck: an immersive, realistic 3D holographic projection of a complete environment that you can interact with and even touch.
In the 21st century are holograms already used in a different ways such as medical systems, education, arts, security and defense. Scientists are still develop ways to use lasers, modern digital processors and motion-sensing technologies to create more different types of holograms it can change the way we interact.
My colleagues and I work at the University of Glasgow’s flexible electronics and sensory technologies research group have now developed a system of holograms of humans using “aerohaptics” that create feelings of touch with air jets. These air jets give a feeling of touch to people’s fingers, hands and wrists.
Over time, this can evolve so that you can meet a virtual avatar of a colleague on the other side of the world and really feel their handshake. It may even be the first step towards building something like a holodeck.
To create this sense of touch, we use affordable, commercially available parts to pair computer-generated graphics with carefully directed and controlled air jets.
In some ways, it’s a step beyond the current generation of virtual reality, which usually requires a headset to deliver 3D graphics and smart gloves or handheld controllers to provide haptic feedback, a stimulus that feels like touch. Most of the portable gadget-based approaches are limited to control the virtual object that is displayed.
Controlling a virtual object does not give the feeling that you would experience when two people touch each other. The addition of an artificial touch feeling can deliver the extra dimension without having to wear gloves to feel objects, and therefore feels much more natural.
Use glass and mirrors to recreate images
Our research uses graphics that give the illusion of a virtual 3D image. It is a modern variation of an illusion technique from the 19th century known as Pepper’s Ghost, which thrilled Victorian theater-goers with visions of the supernatural on stage.
The system uses glass and mirrors to make a two-dimensional image appear to float in space without the need for additional equipment. And our haptic feedback is created with nothing but air.
The mirrors that make up our system are arranged in a pyramidal shape with an open side. Users place their hands through the open page and interact with computer-generated objects that appear to float in free space inside the pyramid. The objects are graphics created and controlled by a software program called Unity Game Engine, which is often used to create 3D objects and worlds in video games.
Located just below the pyramid is a sensor that tracks movements in users’ hands and fingers, and a single air nozzle that directs air jets toward them to create complex touch sensations. The overall system is controlled by electronic hardware programmed to control nozzle movements. We developed an algorithm that enabled the air nozzle to respond to movements in the hands of users with appropriate combinations of direction and force.
One of the ways we have demonstrated the possibilities of the “aerohaptic” system is with an interactive projection of a basketball that can be convincingly touched, rolled and jumped. The touch feedback from air jets from the system is also modulated based on the virtual surface of the basketball, allowing users to feel the rounded shape of the ball as it rolls from the fingertips as they jump on it and a stroke of the palm when it returns.
Users can even push the virtual ball with varying force and sense the resulting difference in how a hard bounce or a soft bounce feels in the palm of the hand. Even something as seemingly simple as jumping with a basketball required us to work hard at modeling the physics of the action and how we could replicate that familiar feeling with air jets.
Holograms: Smell of the future
Although we do not expect to deliver in full Star Trek holodeck experience in the near future, we are already bravely going in new directions to add additional features to the system.
Soon we expect to be able to change the temperature of the air stream so that users can feel hot or cold surfaces. We are also exploring the possibility of adding scents to the airflow, deepening the illusion of virtual objects by letting users smell and touch them.
As the system expands and develops, we expect it to find applications in a wide range of sectors. Providing more absorbing video game experiences without having to carry cumbersome equipment is obvious, but it can also allow for more compelling teleconferencing. You can even take turns adding components to a virtual circuit board while collaborating on a project.
It can also help clinicians collaborate treatments for patients, and make patients feel more involved and informed in the process. Physicians could see, feel, and discuss the properties of tumor cells and show patients plans for a medical procedure.
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