Haptic Technology Is the Next Big Thing

While we are waiting for Apple to design and start selling a holodeck (and the corresponding app for the iPhone), we can at least get a bit closer to that reality right now.

We already have gesture-based games like Kinect, although that has us waving our hands around like crazed apes in a Monty Python sketch. And we have virtual reality games and training devices. The key that can add a bit more realism to such games is haptic feedback. “Haptic” refers to the sense of touch, so haptic feedback is a touch-based sensory feedback.

The wizards at Disney Research have come up with a way to provide this feedback without actually touching you — at least not with anything solid (or liquid). What they have designed and built is a small air cannon that they call Aireal which they describe thusly:

Aireal is a new low-cost, highly scalable haptic technology that delivers expressive tactile sensations in midair. Aireal enables users to feel virtual objects, experience dynamically varying textures, and receive feedback on full-body gestures, all without requiring the user to wear a physical device.

Aireal is part of our long-term vision for creating large-scale computer augmented environments, which can deliver compelling interactive experiences seamlessly, everywhere and at any time. Free air tactile feedback technology is a key element of these future interactive spaces with a wide range of applications including gaming and storytelling, mobile interfaces, and gesture control among many others.

The Aireal device shoots a ring of air (a vortex) that can travel significant distances without collapsing. The cannon has a flexible nozzle assembly. That nozzle is mounted on a gimbal so it can pan (left to right) and tilt (up and down).

There are actuators that act as the thumpers to quickly pressurize the air in the chamber behind the nozzle and force it out. That's the method by which the vortex is generated. The whole thing along with a camera looks like this:

(Source: Disney Research)

(Source: Disney Research)

The camera locates the target at which the vortex is shot. The vortex's impact at full throttle is enough to add emphasis to sports games. It can be dialed back to seem like birds swooping around you or even a butterfly landing on your arm.

Here's a short YouTube video that Disney Research prepared to show the devices in action. While you can't feel what's happening, you'll get the idea.

More details of the apparatus (showing its construction) and applications are available here. After seeing the information presented in the video and on that site, share your ideas on how you would or could use the device.

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19 comments on “Haptic Technology Is the Next Big Thing

  1. goafrit2
    September 30, 2013

    You are spot on on this piece. Most of the newest medical devices are built on the basis of haptic. Haptic will be huge and it will be extremely transformative in the industry. The era of virtual reality is here and there is no better place to experience that than in haptics. The Da Vinci robot which is a medical device is built on haptics.

  2. Brad_Albing
    September 30, 2013

    @goafrit2 – Looks like I'll need to write another blog about that. Thanks

  3. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

    @B_Albing, thanks for the article. I never knew air could be used in haptic technology. Its a very simple yet powerful solution to provide feedback in space. The existing setup looks bulky, need to  miniaturize it so that this can be fit into a smartphone.

  4. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

    The era of virtual reality is here and there is no better place to experience that than in haptics. 

    @goafrit2, I totally agree with you. Such solutions will revolutionize the way feedback is given. This will not only impove the user experience in gaming but it can be used in many other applications as well.

  5. Vishal Prajapati
    October 1, 2013

    The video seems to be very promising and it looks like great innovative idea. It will be the next big virtual world interaction after force feedback which is available in remote controls right now.


    I have no idea how this technology will be helpful in the Medical devices. I am really wondering.

  6. Brad_Albing
    October 1, 2013

    @SunitaT – you're right – this version is rather large. It's intended both as proof of concept and for use in fixed installations/application. Next, they will figure out how to make it smaller.

  7. Brad_Albing
    October 1, 2013

    @VP – I'll gather information on medical applications and prepare a second blog.

  8. Vishal Prajapati
    October 1, 2013

    Thank you sir, I will be waiting for that.

  9. RedDerek
    October 1, 2013

    The video is very well done. I remember when smell-o-vision was being developed some 20 years ago. Have not heard much lately. The Aireal sounds like a nice product when it gets out of the development stage.

  10. Netcrawl
    October 2, 2013

    @Brad great video! interesting topic, the Aireal is making a huge advances in user experience, the applications has lot of potentials, it inject a sense of realism into user experience by allowing the users to feel the action and nuance of the application, this i sperfectly fit in some applications like simulation that rely on visual input.

  11. Netcrawl
    October 2, 2013

    @Brad good idea I can't wait to read that, Haptic on medical applications, something new and innovative. 

  12. Netcrawl
    October 2, 2013

    @Brad, Can haptice technology provide some sort “mechanical feel”?, today's touch screen-driven devices like those of Android and Apple lacks the physical feedback that users frequently need to fully understand the context of their interactions. 


  13. Brad_Albing
    October 2, 2013

    @Netcrawl – yes it can. For touch screens, typically a mechanical transducer (a thumper) is added to provide the needed feedback.

  14. WKetel
    October 2, 2013

    The flip side of much haptic additions  is that it announces to everybody in the area that you are doing something. That might not be so bad for a video game but it can be a pain in othger situations. It is useful on some devices to be notified that an input has been detected, but in a lot of instances it is just a big waste of material and effort. It is a big selling point presently primarily because marketing has made such a big deal of it. I worked at a company that had a team deperately working to creat a haptic feedback system that was different from all the others in order to avoid having to pay royalty fees. They were getting fairly desparate because most of the more obvious and less expensive methods had already been patented. That was about six years ago, so I anticipate that there are a lot of technologies available for licensing by now.

    But haptics for gaming is an entirely different area, and I anticipate that they will become quite obnoxious in the future.

  15. eafpres
    October 2, 2013

    @WKetel–“It is useful on some devices to be notified that an input has been detected, but in a lot of instances it is just a big waste of material and effort.”

    Surely there will be plenty of applications which are just gimmicky.  But there are a lot of options for 3D control and feedback, which can eventually be very valuable.  Some thoughts–there have been haptic joystick controllers, steering wheel controllers, and most recently the Wii controllers.  Take all of those ideas, add the air or related technology, and soon you can dramatically improve aircraft and other vehicle simulators, as well as combat and police simulators used for training.  You might be able to provide full feedback to a pilot of a UAS tracking storms.  

  16. samicksha
    October 3, 2013

    I am not sure about changes or impact of technology in Medical arena, but yes for sure Robotics is boosting, The Shadow Project, now known as the Shadow Robot Company has haptic sensors embedded in every joint and finger pad, which relay information to a central computer for processing and analysis.

  17. WKetel
    October 3, 2013

    That was my point, which is that while some form of feedback can greatly enhance some applications, in a lot of instances it is useless. But the engineering efforts going into getting around the patents of others represent a whole lot of money spent.

  18. yalanand
    October 27, 2013

    Haptic technology has made this possible to examine how the human sense of touch works by allowing the formation of carefully measured haptic virtual objects. These objects are used to methodically probe human haptic abilities, which would otherwise be hard to achieve. These research tools underwrite to the accepting of how touch and its fundamental brain functions work.

  19. Brad_Albing
    October 29, 2013

    @yalanand – it is interesting stuff and it does give us insight to brain processes.

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