Innovations: Touching the Void

Scientists are on the verge of developing 3-D holograms that respond and react to human contact.


Reality Check

Holograms that humans can touch: The very idea conjures up visions of a sci-fi future in which police investigators handle 3-D images of crucial evidence and surgeons probe a model of a patient’s brain to find the precise location of a tumor. Now, researchers at Britain’s University of Bristol are turning those visions into reality.

In December, a team from the university’s computer science department announced that it had invented a way to create holographic shapes using “haptic feedback” — tiny air vibrations that react to touch and mimic the sensation of handling a physical object. The researchers focused ultrasound waves, which further amplify the tactile response, into complex patterns above a holographic projector; they found that the feedback created shapes that could be seen and felt. In fact, when the visual element of the method was disabled, test subjects could still identify the “objects” they were touching.

Once developed further, the innovation, known as UltraHaptics, could have a host of high-tech applications. “Touchable holograms, immersive virtual reality that you can feel, and complex touchable controls in free space are all possible ways of using this system,” Benjamin Long, one of the researchers, said in a news release issued by the University of Bristol. Coroners could examine parts of a body without removing them, or children could feel an ancient artifact in a museum — a mummy, perhaps, or a scroll — without damaging it.

As it happens, researchers in Tokyo announced in October that they had developed a similar technology called HaptoMime, which uses both ultrasound waves and infrared sensors. Among other things, the inventors are interested in creating 3-D images of touch screens, which would allow people to play a virtual piano or avoid contacting — and thus spreading — germs found on ATM keypads and computer keyboards.

Indeed, haptic holograms could revolutionize 3-D computer interfaces. Other innovators have experimented with “data gloves,” which contain sensor technologies that allow wearers to activate virtual operating systems. But as Long and his Bristol colleagues write in their findings, “[T]his requires the process of fitting [gloves] on before use. This can be cumbersome and prevents instantaneous user interaction.” It is far better and more “elegant,” the researchers suggest, to spontaneously generate floating control panels, for example, that could be activated and tossed aside at will. It’s a good bet that computer users and designers around the world will agree.

Second Floor to 
the Left, Please

A revolution in elevators has been a long time coming. Other Victorian-era technologies have transformed beyond recognition — typewriters, for instance, have given way to computers and tablets — but modern elevators remain close cousins of their earliest incarnations: boxes connected to a set of cables and a counterweight, traveling in a vertical shaft.

With a new design, unveiled in late November, ThyssenKrupp, a German steel company, may finally be bringing the humble lift into the future. ThyssenKrupp has built a machine powered not by cables, but by magnets, and capable of moving not just up and down, but also left and right. It’s the closest the world has ever come to the Wonkavator from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Magnet-based elevators would be a boon for innovative architects with heads full of creative designs. What’s more, as the world urbanizes and the buildings of some megacities grow taller, elevators that function efficiently and take up less precious space are increasingly important. Because several magnet-powered elevators could operate simultaneously in one shared shaft, ThyssenKrupp says its design could increase a building’s usable area by as much as 25 percent, while dramatically boosting passenger capacity.

The elevator helped create modern city life. Now next-generation lifts could give rise to urban landscapes as we’ve never seen them before.

Smart Is the New Black

What you wear can say a lot about you — 
especially now that researchers at Canada’s Université Laval have created a stylish smart fabric that can monitor and communicate a wearer’s heartbeat, brain waves, glucose levels, and other health indicators. The fabric is made of layers of copper, polymers, glass, and silver, which act as sensors and antennas; information gathered can be transmitted via wireless or cellular networks. The fabric is durable and malleable — and also machine washable. With smart clothing, doctors could monitor aging or chronically ill patients, constantly updating medical records and reducing health-care costs by cutting down on office visits. Moreover, the fabric could be used to remotely track the health of firefighters, first responders, and soldiers deployed overseas, alerting supervisors when individuals are in need of medical assistance.

Breathe In, Breathe Out, and Forget

Fresh air does a body good, the thinking goes. For some people, however, air permeated with an odorless, colorless, and dense noble gas could be even better. In late summer, researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility that treated Sylvia Plath, John Nash Jr., and David Foster Wallace, found that xenon gas can reduce 
memories of traumatic events. Every time the brain recalls a memory — along with the pain or fear attached to it — that memory is refreshed and stored, much like a new one. Called “reconsolidation,” this process leaves open a window in which the memory can be modified. With this in mind, McLean researchers conditioned rats to be afraid of environmental cues and electroshocks. When fearful, the animals naturally froze. Some of the rodents were then exposed to xenon, a gas that occurs in trace amounts in the Earth’s atmosphere. All of the rats’ fear responses were tested again — and those in the xenon-exposed group froze for just a fraction of the time they had before. “It was as though the animals no longer remembered to be afraid of those cues,” study author Edward Meloni said in a news release issued by McLean. Xenon is safe for use in humans, meaning a similar technique could help treat sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, which in a given year afflicts millions worldwide.

Photo credit: Bristol Interaction and Graphics, University of Bristol

Barron YoungSmith is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. @byoungsmith
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. @APQW
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