Acoustic holograms that let you feel objects in mid air make a big leap forward

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

In the real world our interactions with the virtual world are limited, after all a virtual ball in VR technically doesn’t exist, so researchers have been trying to find ways to make them “feel real.”

 

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Have you ever wanted to feel whatever it is you’ve been viewing on your gadgets screen? Well, while companies like Apple mess about with taptic technology other companies have been developing what are known as acoustic holograms that let you feel objects in mid air and play air guitar using ultrasound.

 

 

While these can give games and other virtual experiences an extra dimension, like touch, it’s hard to achieve so tech startup Emerge is now having a crack at the idea with their Emerge Wave-1  product, a device that pairs with a VR headset and emits ultrasonic waves that let users feel virtual objects and sensations.

 

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The Emerge Wave-1 is a panel measuring 10.25 x 11.75 in (26 x 29.8 cm) that sits on a table and projects a 3D volume of ultrasound into the air above it. When you hold your hands over the device, you can feel this force as tactile points, which extend as far as 3 ft (0.9 m) above the panel and spread 120 degrees around it.

The idea is that this haptic feedback should map to virtual objects you’re seeing through the VR headset, the Meta Quest 2. The Wave-1 system syncs up to the Emerge Home app, which will include a range of games and social apps specially made for the system.

 

 

None of the apps need any controllers besides the player’s own hands, which are tracked through the Meta Quest 2’s hand tracking sensors. The glimpses of the games so far look like users will be blasting asteroids with energy beams, spraying water on farm animals, or bouncing balls around a big pinball-like arena, with all of those actions accompanied by force feedback on the hands.

 

See how acoustic holograms works

 

The social apps look like the usual schlock that’s mocked up for board meetings to get investors to throw money at this ill-defined metaverse – think avatars sitting around a virtual room, chatting. But the company says the Emerge Wave-1 lets users actually feel each other when shaking hands or giving high-fives.

Acoustic holograms are definitely an intriguing area of VR that remains largely unexplored, and the Emerge Wave-1 seems to be one of the first consumer-ready devices to hit the market. But it does look like it has its limitations.

 

 

For one, the ultrasonic waves are only coming from one direction, which would presumably limit the range of tactile sensations on offer. It seems like you’d have to keep your hands flat to feel the full force, and there are only so many gameplay options that that could work with, so how Emerge’s own handshake or high-five examples would work from that angle is anyone’s guess.

The other issue I can foresee is that the experiences are locked to Emerge’s own app ecosystem. If you’re spending hundreds of dollars on a piece of hardware, you’ll want a guarantee that there will be plenty of software to actually use it with, beyond a few minigames and a virtual hangout space. If it could somehow work with the wider library of the Quest system, it would be a much easier sell.

Still, it’s a very interesting idea based on tech that’s been percolating for years, and I’m looking forwards to see how well it fares.

 

 

Emerge is currently seeking funding for the Wave-1 and Home system on Kickstarter, where the project has currently raised over $50,000 of its $200,000 goal with 35 days remaining. Pledges start at $450, with shipping due in either April or September, depending on the selected tier.

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