A centuries-old magic trick is assisting us in the creation of holograms that we can feel.

Ravinder Dahiya is a professor of Electronics and Nanoengineering at the University of Glasgow, where he has worked for more than a decade. The Conversation published an original version of this storey.

The concept of a holodeck was popularised by the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation, which featured an immersive, realistic 3D holographic projection of a complete environment that you could interact with and even touch.
Holograms are already being utilised in a range of applications in the twenty-first century, including medical systems, education, art, security, and military. In the near future, scientists will be working on ways to employ lasers, contemporary computer processors, and motion-sensing technologies to produce several different kinds of holograms, which could fundamentally alter how humans interact with one another.

With the help of “aerohaptics,” which uses air jets to create the sensation of touch, my colleagues and I at the University of Glasgow’s bendable electronics and sensing technologies research group have created a system of holograms of humans that may be used to train soldiers in combat. On the fingers, hands, and wrists of those who are exposed to the air jets, they get a sensation of touch.

If this technology continues to advance, it may be possible to meet a virtual avatar of a colleague on the opposite side of the world and actually feel their handshake. In fact, it could be the initial step toward the construction of something like the holodeck.

To create the sensation of touch, we use inexpensive, readily available commercially available parts to combine computer-generated visuals with carefully directed and regulated jets of air, resulting in a tactile experience.

Compared to the current generation of virtual reality, which typically requires a headset to give 3D images and smart gloves or portable controllers to provide haptic feedback, which is stimulation that feels similar to touch, this is a significant advancement. The majority of wearable gadget-based approaches are restricted to controlling the virtual item that is being displayed on the screen of the device.

The sensation of controlling a virtual object is not the same as the sensation of two individuals touching each other. Incorporating an artificial touch sensation can provide an additional dimension without the need to wear gloves to sense items, and it seems much more natural as a result.

Making use of glass and mirrors

Our research makes use of visuals that create the illusion of a three-dimensional virtual image. A modern twist on the 19th-century illusion technique known as Pepper’s Ghost, which delighted Victorian theatregoers with visions of the otherworldly onstage, this is a modern take on the method.

The technology makes a two-dimensional image appear to float in space by using glass and mirrors, and it does not require any additional equipment to accomplish this. And the only thing that we use to provide haptic feedback is pure air.

The mirrors that make up our system are stacked in a pyramid shape, with one side open to allow for ventilation. Users engage with computer-generated objects that appear to be floating in free space within the pyramid by inserting their hands through the open side and interacting with them. The items are 3D images developed and controlled by a software tool known as the Unity Game Engine, which is frequently used in videogames to create 3D objects and worlds in three dimensions.

Just below the pyramid is a sensor that records the movements of the user’s hands and fingers, as well as a single air nozzle that directs jets of air towards the user’s hands and fingers, resulting in complex sensations of touching. The complete system is controlled by electrical circuitry that has been programmed to control the movement of the nozzles. A new algorithm was devised that allowed the air nozzle to adapt to the movements of the user’s hands by delivering appropriate combinations of direction and force to them.

When demonstrating the possibilities of the “aerohaptic” system, we have used an interactive projection of a basketball, which can be convincingly rolled and bounced, as well as a basketball that can be handled, rolled, and bounced. The touch feedback from the system’s air jets is also modulated based on the virtual surface of the basketball, allowing users to feel the rounded shape of the ball as it rolls from their fingertips when they bounce it, as well as the slap in their palm when the ball returns, when they use the system.

Users can even press the virtual ball with varied degrees of force and feel the difference in how a hard bounce or a soft bounce feels in their hand as a result. Everything from bouncing a basketball to flying through the air required us to put out significant effort in modelling the action’s mechanics and determining how we might recreate the familiar sensation using jets of air.

Smells that herald the future

While we don’t expect to be able to give a complete Star Trek holodeck experience in the near future, we are already taking risks to expand the system’s capabilities in innovative ways. We anticipate being able to adjust the temperature of the airflow in the near future, allowing users to feel hot or cold surfaces. We’re also looking at the idea of incorporating smells into the airflow, which would enhance the perception of virtual things by allowing users to smell them in addition to touching them.

As the system grows and improves, we anticipate that it will find applications in a wide variety of industries. Delivering more engaging video gaming experiences without the need to wear bulky equipment is an obvious benefit, but it could also allow for more convincing teleconferencing as well as other applications. You could even take turns adding components to a virtual circuit board while working on a project with a group of people.

It could also assist clinicians in collaborating on patient treatments, as well as allowing patients to feel more involved and informed throughout the process. Doctors were able to see, feel, and discuss the characteristics of tumour cells, as well as show patients designs for medical procedures.

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