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Virtual screen delivers mid-air touch

29 Oct 2014

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The idea of interacting with three-dimensional floating images has mostly been a science fiction material. But a research team in Japan is developing a mid-air interaction system that allows users to touch a floating virtual screen.

Dubbed HaptoMime, the system implements mid-air projection. The projected images can be manipulated using the fingers. But the real catch here is the finger encounters a mechanical force consistent with the floating image so users actually feel what they are touching.

The tactile feedback works to provide clues to direct the finger motion in mid-air. For example, users can draw graphics by limiting the tracing onto the virtual 2D canvas. As with touchscreens, the perception of surface constraint is grasped in the form of normal and friction forces. The artificial reconstruction of such tactile cues thus aids users to perform tasks in a 3D space.

The researchers identified four key components used in the system: the aerial imaging plate (AIP), a liquid crystal display (LCD), an infrared (IR) touch sensor, and an ultrasonic phased array transducer.

Led by Yasuaki Monnai, the team generated the floating virtual screen by reflected the LCD through the AIP. The screen is then overlaid with the IR touch sensor to detect finger insertion. The ultrasonic phased array transducer delivers focused ultrasound onto the fingertip.

To deploy the tactile feedback, the researchers utilised an indirect path reflected at the surface of the AIP so that the ultrasound impinges on the virtual screen perpendicularly.

Although other modalities such as audio-visual effects can be used to signify touch events, they do not work directly on a fingertip. This indirectness makes it difficult to distinguish just the depth of the fingertip, according to the team. This results in a tendency to insert the fingertip deeply into the floating image, which not only leads to a longer finger stroke but also involves a contradictory optical obstruction where the image supposed to appear in front of the finger is blocked by the finger.

Comfortable and secure use of computers is one application for the virtual touchscreen the team is looking at. For example, users can enjoy browsing the Web even with wet or dirty hands. It can also mitigate the risk of contagion by sharing a touchscreen with multiple users. Moreover, the absence of a fingerprint allows for secure password or key inputs.

HaptoMime is a system that allows mid-air haptic interaction with a floating virtual screen. (Source: ACM Digital Library)

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