In the really cool sci-fi visions of virtual reality — Star Trek’s holodeck, say — the illusory environments aren’t just visual. You can actually touch and interact with the VR objects physically. That’s what makes it science fiction.

Still, a new technology out of the U.K. suggests we may be inching closer to a holodeck style experience. UltraHaptics uses a system of projected sound waves to create 3-D virtual objects that you can actually feel with your hand.

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The concentrated sound waves are emitted from multiple speakers situated underneath a platform. When the sound waves hit your hand, they exert pressure that makes it feel like you’re touching an invisible floating object. So far, the system can only project basic shapes — like a sphere, cube or pyramid. But researchers at the University of Bristol hope to improve on the “sonic resolution” with time.

The trick is that the UltraHaptic system uses a sophisticated motion sensor system to track the exact position of your hand. The “sound object” doesn’t actually exist in the empty space. Instead, the system directs ultrasound at the precise location and frequency to approximate a particular tactile sensation.

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The design team says the technology could have potential future applications in commercial VR entertainment systems, educational displays or even medical diagnostics.

Keep in mind that the UltraHaptic system has no visual component. To get the full effect, the ultrasound system would need to be paired with a synchronized hologram generator. The images in the photos and accompanying demo video — see below — are evidently inserted for illustrative purposes. Still, I have a good feeling about this one, as it were.

Via New Scientist

Credit: UltraHaptics