Feeling Virtual Environments With Ultrasound

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News Posted: Tue, Sep 2 2008 2:57 PM

Force feedback has become commonplace in today's game controllers. To many, the simulated forces create a more realistic game-play environment. A group of scientists at the University of Tokyo in Japan are on working on a new technology that can potentially allow force feedback-type sensations and controller input all without the need of a joystick or other physical input device at all--all feedback sensations and input could be done simply in "mid air."

The scientists, Takayuki Iwamoto, Mari Tatezono, Takayuki Hoshi, and Hiroyuki Shinoda, have developed what they call an "Airborne Ultrasound Tactile Display." Tactile feedback in "3D free space" is not necessarily a new concept: in the abstract for a paper the researchers presented at SIGGRAPH08, they mention that "Immersion Corporation developed CyberTouch [Immersion 2007] which features small vibrotactile stimulators on each finger and the palm to interact with objects in a virtual world with tactile feedback." But they also criticize this approach as they state that it "inherently degrades tactile feelings due to the contact between the skin and the device occurring even when there is no need to provide tactile sensation." Another possible approach is to use air jets, but they claim that an "air-jet can not produce localized force due to diffusion," as well as a number of other limitations. These types of touch-based interfaces are referred to as haptic technology.

Instead of requiring a special glove or using air jets, the University of Tokyo researchers use ultrasound. Ultrasound refers to sound waves that are at a frequency usually above that of the threshold of human hearing (20kHz). Ultrasound is commonly used in the medical field, such as with pre-natal sonograms, and other more commonplace applications such as teeth cleaning and in some humidifiers. The researchers explain how their technology works:

"The airborne ultrasound tactile display is designed to provide tactile feedback in 3D free space. The display radiates airborne ultrasound, and produced high-fidelity pressure fields into the user's hands without the use of gloves or mechanical attachments...

The method is based on a nonlinear phenomenon of ultrasound; acoustic radiation pressure. When an object interrupts the propagation of ultrasound, a pressure field is exerted on the surface of the object. This pressure is called acoustic radiation pressure."

There are two primary hardware components to the implementation: a "display" made up of ultrasonic transducers and a hand-tracking camera. As a user's hand moves over the display, the ultrasonic beams are shifted in order to respond to the movement to simulate interaction with the hand and the virtual object. The BBC News reports that "the result is a feeling of tracing the edge or surface of the virtual object," and "at the moment, the system provides a small force only in the vertical dimension, but the team is improving the geometry of the array and the amount of power it can produce so that future devices will provide a stiffer feel and more contoured objects... the team is working to adjust how the transducers are driven in order to produce realistic textures as well as shapes

." Multiple users can interact with the display simultaneously and users can use both hands.

 Credit: University of Tokyo
The researchers envision the technology being used with 3D modeling applications and video games. In their abstract they state that "it is expected that by superimposing the acoustic radiation pressure onto the 3D graphic objects presented with stereoscopic displays, it effectively enhances the reality of the 3D virtual objects."

The researchers do not specifically mention holographic displays, but being able to interact with virtual objects in mid air without being physically tethered to any devices, such as 3D glasses, makes their technology even more compelling. Holographic displays still have a ways to go before we'll see them go anywhere near mainstream implementation, but companies such as

Obscura Digital



have publicly demonstrated mid-air display technologies that have a lot of potential.

We're definitely at least a few years away from being able to interact with virtual objects in "3D free space," but that day is coming. The interactive holographic displays from the film

Minority Report

, or even the immersive holodeck environment from

Star Trek: The Next Generation
, might be closer to reality that we thought.

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This would be some incrediable technology to actually be able to interact with a Holographic display! I probably would never leave my house!Could make a person for a short period of time forget about physical and mental problems for a while.Might also be utilized later for HMMMMMM pain management with out the physicall addiction!Woo Hoo.OK maybe Im sterching it a little dont hurt to imagine the possibilities! Make a heck off a toy watch out Playstaion, Xbox and Wii!





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warlord replied on Tue, Sep 2 2008 4:57 PM

This could certainly have a place in the market.

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3vi1 replied on Tue, Sep 2 2008 5:48 PM

I'm skeptical as to how realistic these methods might feel and how easy they would be to use for interaction.

With no actual resistance mechanism, something might "feel" solid, but you're still going to put your hand right through it (or push it without meaning to). There's feedback, but no force.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?


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Lev_Astov replied on Thu, Sep 4 2008 11:00 AM

That's really awesome. I'm very excited by this, as well as the links to developers of mid-air displays.

><((((">Lev Astov

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rapid1 replied on Thu, Sep 4 2008 12:11 PM

I think to a greater degree this speaks more and more to the whole market moving to a virtual platform. The methods won't be realistic at first but as it develops it will get better. Then you think about the level of development holography is seeing connect the to and you really have something. Imagine not having a physical monitor, but a holographic monitor, No mouse at all. just use your hands to move, cut and paste, Select objects on your screen. I think in a way it points to a pretty large market shift to the mobility front as well. Laptop versus desktop has been favoring it for a few years now. Then look at cell phone mobility I see a computer the size of a child's shoebox, with a holographic display on top. Add this in not for the force feedback but the virtual movement and you have a whole platform.

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