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Star Trek predicted and inspired many technologies we often take for granted these days. From automatic sliding doors to portable, handheld communication devices – what was completely in the realm of fiction just a few decades ago is now actual. Fans of the show will be delighted to know that another fictional technology from it will soon become an ubiquitous reality: holograms you can touch and interact with.
Holographic technology made impressive strides over the last decade, with holographic singer Hatsune Miku “performing” to crowds of thousands. Japanese researchers are now taking the technology another massive and cool step forward.
Researchers in haptics – the science of touch – from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Complexity Science and Engineering (DCSE) have invented the “Haptoclone” – an interactive system that allows for a completely novel method of communication, one they dubbed “telehaptics.”
With Haptoclone, all you need to do is insert an object, say your hand or a ball, into one box, and a representation is recreated in its partner box some distance away. The system is fully interactive, and you can experience the illusion of physically touching the object in the other box.
The Haptoclone works in a, relatively, straightforward way. A standard Kinect sensor captures the object’s position and movement in one box. The data is then transmitted to the other box, where special “aerial imaging panels” create a 3D image of the object. The magic – what allows you to feel something that isn’t there – is the researcher’s real innovation.
Each box is lined with four ultrasounds arrays. These emit ultrasonic radiation pressure that mimics the object and allows you to interact with the hologram.
For the time being, the haptic sensation is somewhat limited. You can only lightly stroke the hologram, due to the limitations of ultrasound.
“The [level] of ultrasound we’re currently using is very safe, but if it’s too strong, ultrasound can damage the insides of the human body such as the nerves and other tissues,” says Hiroyuki Shinoda, a University of Tokyo haptics researcher. “We have to consider the limitations.”
Another limitation is in aerial imaging panels. The panels, made by Japanese design firm Asukanet, are so expensive they’re mostly used only for research. This is the next issue the Haptoclone team is tackling.
“The images are so realistic, so it would be great to correlate the sense of touch with that. I guess that would increase the realness of it all,” said Yoshikazu Furuyama, a researcher on the team.
So a Star Trek holodeck may still be a few years away, but soon enough you could shake the hand of the hologram of someone sitting on the other side of the world.