Scientists Invent 3D Holograms That You Can Touch

A woman interacts with shapes created by UltraHaptics. Bristol University/Bristol Interaction and Graphics Group

Scientists at Bristol University have discovered a way to make 3D holograms that we can touch and feel in mid-air.

The system, called UltraHaptics, has been developed by the university's Department of Computer Science, and involves a device that can pick up ultrasound waves present in the air, condensing them to create a pressure difference that gives the illusion of a touchable 3D object floating in thin air.

One expected application of the technology is for it to be used to help treat illness, by allowing surgeons to virtually touch and feel the affected areas of a patient - for example a tumour - displayed on CT scan before operating.

Up until now, the researchers had created points in the air which could be felt, allowing them to interact with information on a screen - like scrolling on a smartphone without actually touching it.

But in their latest paper the research group details how the technology can be used to create a continual surface of these 'haptic points', which can form a three-dimensional hologram that floats in mid air, giving the illusion of touching a 3D object.

In the video below, you can see the shapes created by the ultrasound as they're projected onto the surface of oil.

The technology could also be applied in virtual reality, with devices such as the Oculus Rift, recently purchased by Facebook, making virtual experiences ever more realistic. As it is now, those wearing Oculus Rift can see and hear, but using the UltraHaptics device they could soon be able to touch things too, adding a new dimension to the experience.

Dr Benjamin Long led research on the technology, alongside his colleagues professor Sriram Subramanian, Sue Ann Seah and Tom Carter from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol.

Dr Long said: "In the future, people could feel holograms of objects that would not otherwise be touchable, such as feeling the differences between materials in a CT scan or understanding the shapes of artefacts in a museum."

The research paper was published in the current issue of ACM Transactions on Graphics and was presented at a three-day computer graphics and interactive techniques conference ending tomorrow.

The now exists under a company of the same name. In mid-November, the company secured a £600,000 investment for further development of the system, later asking for an additional £3 million. They will begin the new year being featured at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.