Ultraleap makes digital content tangible in the air. New hardware could help the technology make a breakthrough.
Ultraleap produces ultrasonic transducers that enable haptics without devices. Users can feel virtual objects in the air and interact with them through hand gestures. The hardware required for this is now upgraded to make it much more efficient and suitable for mass production.
Ultraleap in the cockpit: gesture control instead of touch screen and buttons
Ultraleap was born in 2019 from the merger of Leap Motion and Ultrahaptics, two companies specializing in hand tracking and XR haptics. Leap Motion mainly focused on hand and finger tracking. Ultrahaptics has produced small ultrasonic mats that make the outlines of a virtual object perceptible in the air.
After the merger of the two companies, Ultraleap is expected to move forward with advanced XR interfaces. Finger tracking and haptics in the air should be combined and further developed. However, in addition to the XR industry, Ultraleap has focused on the automotive sector in recent years and wants to replace the touchscreen and physical controls in cockpits with “Virtual Touch”.
Gesture control is nothing new in itself. Google introduced Soli radar control in 2019 with the Google Pixel 4 smartphone. By finger gestures, media players can be operated, for example, without touching the screen. Today, Soli sits in the Google Nest Hub 2 smart display and helps with sleep analysis.
However, Ultraleap’s Virtual Touch goes further and projects ultrasound-based tactile sensations into the air. Unlike Soli, Virtual Touch users can feel virtual objects in the air and make adjustments in the cockpit by turning or dragging them. Ultraleap has now been able to significantly optimize the hardware required for this and speaks of a generational change in design.
The haptics in the air will be smaller, cheaper and better
Ultraleap CEO Tom Carter explained the technology on Twitter: “Ultrasonic transducers are like little speakers that project ultrasound onto your hand to create the haptic effect.” The hardest part of developing transducers, he said, is converting electrical energy into sound instead of heat.
Today, we are announcing a truly revolutionary innovation that has been in development for seven years: new ultrasonic transducers.
They make haptics smaller, cheaper, and automotive ready.https://t.co/ejnRFXJ924
—Tom Carter (@iamtomcarter) November 2, 2022
“This challenge is even more difficult for transducers that operate in air rather than in water (sonar) or human tissue (medical). To convert energy to your target medium, you use a matching layer,” Carter writes. To convert energy into the target medium, he says, a corresponding layer is used. It is usually about the same size as the wavelength of the ultrasound used.
Ultraleap’s transducer is only a fraction of a wavelength thick without sacrificing performance, according to Carter. The design is also greatly simplified, he said, making it cheaper to manufacture and install in Ultraleap’s customer products.
Get out of the niche with more efficient hardware
Thus, the new ultrasonic transducers are smaller, cheaper and easier to build than previous models while maintaining the same performance. Ultraleap expects this to result in a more efficient manufacturing process and, for the first time, truly scalable production of in-air haptics.
“Since Ultraleap has been around, the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of in-flight haptics have been size and cost,” Carter said. Without a generational shift in transducer design, in-air haptics would remain a niche technology.
For now, Virtual Touch should be accepted in the automotive industry. The benefits of gesture control are obvious: drivers can keep their eyes on the road at all times when they don’t have to search for buttons or controls on the touchscreen. However, a return from Virtual Touch to virtual reality or augmented reality is not excluded.
The success of the metaverse depends on the interaction with virtual objects
The roots of Ultraleap, as mentioned earlier, lie in technologies that today lay the foundations for an eventual metaverse. Although the company is mainly active in other industries today, it sees aerial haptics as an important innovation for interaction in mixed reality applications.
Although the term “metaverse” is overused, it is appropriate to describe a world where digital content exists in 3D and merges with the physical world, the company explains. The success of the metaverse largely depends on how people interact with the virtual objects it contains. Hand tracking and haptics in the air play a crucial role.
The combination of these technologies enables natural interactions without controls, buttons or touchscreens. According to Ultraleap, this is the only way to create real emotional connections between people, products and places. It is therefore possible that Ultraleap will return to its roots and that Virtual Touch will one day find its way back to mixed reality.