The “Air Button” Boom

Last week, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced the development of new contactless touchscreens (Air Buttons) on car dashboards in partnership with the University of Cambridge. It will employ patented technology known as ‘predictive touch’ which is based on mid-air haptics. Until recently, this has been a relatively niche and lesser-known field of technology. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become more relevant to our health and safety.

Mid-air haptic technology enables the control of devices without the need to physically touch its surface physically. Many of you would have seen it before in movies like Iron Man when Tony Stark builds his suits by moving holograms. Essentially, concentrated ultrasound radiation is emitted from devices. The radiation is perceivable by the skin to mimic the sense of touch. Motion sensors on the device then allow users to manipulate it in mid-air. JLR’s ‘predictive touch would combine mid-air haptics with artificial intelligence to predict a user’s intended target on the touchscreen.

As concerns persist about the transmission of the COVID-19 virus through contact with surfaces, mid-air haptics eliminates the need to touch an interactive display. Therefore, the risk of spreading the virus would be reduced.

In the automotive industry, the use of mid-air haptics has been touted for many years. According to Lee Skrypchuk, a human-machine interface technical specialist at JLR, predictive touch would enhance safety by reducing the time drivers need to spend looking away from the road. Since the AI can predict a driver’s actions from the user profile and contextual information, the time and effort needed to use touchscreens would be reduced by up to 50%.

While JLR’s objectives appear revolutionary, research from The Globe And Mail indicates that more innovative infotainment systems may actually increase distraction. Perhaps mid-air haptics should be introduced alongside touchscreens with less multi-layer menus and animations.

Another industry where mid-air haptics is making big strides is in aviation. The technology is being extensively researched as a replacement for full flight simulators that are expensive to manufacture and limited to one aircraft type. Mid-air haptics could be implemented to create 3D control panels that can interchange between a variety of different aircraft types. Virtual reality and augmented reality could be added for quality and more cost-effective immersive training. 

Lastly, mid-air haptics has introduced touchless technology into the services industry like in fast-food restaurants. Just a month ago, CEN Media Group and Ultraleap signed a deal that will see hand-tracking and ultrasonic technology installed into advertising displays for contactless customer interaction. Ultraleap is also developing mid-air haptic interfaces for fast-food restaurant kiosks while exploring how the technology can be implemented into ATMs and elevators.

For each of the industries that have been mentioned above, mid-air haptics presents increasingly practical benefits. But what will be its wider financial and social implications?

It would mean a decrease in demand for hardware. All that will be needed is just a blank board or screen display with ultrasonic transducers and sensors. This will significantly cut the cost of manufacturing while reducing the extraction of raw materials, thereby benefitting the environment.  For drivers, the potential of lesser accidents will lower the overall cost of insurance payments, repairs and other related expenses. The aviation industry will benefit from the ability to streamline pilot training as they will no longer be restricted by the availability of simulators. Furthermore, the ability to shop and go to restaurants without having to touch screens may make more health-conscious consumers confident in coming out and spending money. This could help with the rescue of high-street retail.

Marianna Obrist, professor of multisensory interfaces at University College London, points out that mid-air haptics can also positively impact emotions. She says that it can ‘give [people] the much-needed sense of touch’ that is missing during the era of social distancing.

Do you think mid-air haptics will be revolutionary or do you think technologists should focus on more pressing needs?


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