Imagine this. You wake up in the morning to the irritating buzz of your alarm. Instead of fumbling for a snooze button, you wave your hand in the air in the general direction of the clock. There, in mid-air, you find it: an invisible button. It’s an illusion you can feel, like a hologram for your fingers. One swipe at the button, and the alarm shuts off. You’re free to sleep for a few more minutes — even though you never touched the clock.
The science of touch is called haptics. Sriram Subramanian describes the floating alarm clock button as one example of how a new technology called “ultrahaptics” might be used. “It does seem a bit far-fetched,” admits this computer scientist at the University of Sussex in England. But, he quickly adds, such a device is possible. Researchers in his lab now create virtual, three-dimensional objects that people can feel.
The secret to their success — sound waves. Actually, it’s no secret. A growing number of researchers around the world are investigating how sound waves can be used to simulate touch. These sound waves are ultrasonic. That means they’re so high-pitched people can’t hear them. At the same time, they’re strong enough to put pressure on human skin and trigger the sensation of touch. Scientists can change the location and shape of a tactile (touch) illusion by adjusting the sound waves, focusing them on a particular spot.
Read more about Ultrahaptics in my Science News for Students article, here.
Photo credit: Tom Carter / Ultrahaptics