The sci-fi TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the concept of the holodeck. This is a three-dimensional holographic projection of an environment that you can interact with. And now it has a possible analog in the real world.

A team of Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) researchers from Glasgow University, led by Ravinder Dahiya, professor of electronics and nanoengineering, has developed a special “aerotactile” system. It transmits the sensation of touch using air currents. In the future, it will make it possible to feel the handshake of virtual avatars of colleagues from other parts of the world.

To recreate the tactile sensation, the researchers combined computer graphics and air currents. This approach is ahead of the current generation of virtual reality, which requires a headset that displays 3D graphics as well as smart gloves or handheld motion controllers.

Most approaches using wearable devices allow only control over the displayed virtual object, which does not give the sensation of two people actually touching. The simulated tactile sensation provides an additional dimension and eliminates the need to wear gloves. It may even be possible to use this technology in porn PC games.

How The System Works

Scientists used graphics to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. It is a modern version of Pepper’s Ghost illusionism technique, which was used in the 19th century. The system consists of glasses and mirrors that make the two-dimensional image look as if it is floating in the air, while the tactile sensation is recreated with air.

The mirrors are arranged in the shape of a pyramid with one open side. Users reach into it and interact with computer objects that “float” inside the pyramid. The objects are graphics that are controlled by the Unity Game Engine. It is usually used to create 3D objects and worlds in video games.

Under the pyramid, there is a sensor that monitors hand and finger movements, as well as an air nozzle that controls airflows. Electronic equipment that controls this air nozzle is responsible for the entire system. The team developed an algorithm by which it responds to hand movements of the appropriate force and direction.

To demonstrate the capabilities of the “aerotactile” system, the scientists ran an interactive projection of a basketball. The haptic sensations provided by the air currents are modulated based on the virtual surface of the ball. This makes it possible to feel its rounded shape as it rotates on the fingers.

Users can even push the virtual ball with varying force – the sensations will also vary. Even something as simple as tossing a ball has gone to great lengths to simulate the physics of movement and reproduce familiar feelings with airflow.

What Comes Next

Researchers probably won’t be introducing a full-fledged version of the holodeck from Star Trek in the near future. However, they are already working on new features. For example, the ability to change the temperature of the airflow to transmit hot and cold surfaces. In addition, the team wants to add smells to deepen the illusion of virtual objects.

As the system develops, the researchers expect it to become handy in a variety of sectors. For example, in video games and teleconferences. Doctors will also be able to use it to develop treatments with patients and get them involved in the process.

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