In the future, you may not need to actually touch a glass panel to interact with a touchscreen, and instead, you’ll reach into thin air and “touch” a holographic display. If that’s not cool enough, ultrasonic waves will detect your fingers and make it “feel” like you’re really pressing the floating buttons. This isn’t science fiction, because a team of scientists at the University of Tokyo have demonstrated the technology, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
At first it’s difficult to realize exactly what you’re looking at, because the floating icons all look like they appear on a physical screen. Except they don’t. It’s called a HaptoMime display, and it works using reflective panels to generate holographic images. An infrared sensor then triggers the ultrasonics when you reach out, fooling you into thinking you’re touching a physical surface.
The ultrasound wave can be fine tuned to give different degrees of feedback, ranging from a soft resistance to a solid surface, just like a piece of glass. A demonstration video shows the display in action, where icons are shifted around, numbers entered into a keypad, and a simple tune tapped out on a small piano keyboard. The ultrasound can also be seen in action, when a piece of paper flaps and bends as its passed through the stream.
According to the New Scientist, the team is concentrating on developing the HaptoMime for the medical world, where the screen could be used during surgery, making it easier for doctors to use touchscreen interfaces without actually touching anything. Similarly, the screens could minimize the spread of germs when used on ATMs, or other publicly used touchscreen devices.
The practical applications for the tech don’t seem to include consumer technology just yet, but we can’t help but dream of a future tablet shaped like an empty picture frame, with a holographic, ultrasonic display filling the void when it’s switched on.