Disney Research has developed a device which generates and projects air vortices with the aim of enhancing interactions between the human and digital spheres by re-creating the sense of touch.

Puffs of Air Soon to Augment Web Browsing Interface?

During the series of conferences at Laval Virtual 2013, which took place in the town of Laval, in the Mayenne département in north-west France earlier this year, a group of researchers demonstrated the results of their Aquatop Display system. Their device improves man-machine interaction by using a water surface as a screen. Now researchers at Disney Research, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working along the same lines and trying to improve feedback sensations from devices such as Microsoft’s Kinect camera, have created a system which enables the user to actually feel the sensation of touch when manipulating interfaces or remote objects on a computer. This ‘feedback’ from the screen is created by spiralling puffs of air.

Remedying the lack of sensation

The ‘Aireal’ device developed by the Disney researchers is based on a fairly simple design. It consists of a compressed air generator and nozzle which fires off puffs of air in the form of vortex rings. These are similar to ‘smoke rings’ and can be made visible using smoke. The air pulses can be aimed in the desired direction, for example straight at the hands of the computer user. The vortices, which are more stable than simple jets of air, can be felt up to 1.5 metres away. The size of the ‘speakers’ which produce the air pulses can be varied, as can the strength, speed and waveform of the vortices, so as to alter the type of sensation felt by the user. So far the researchers have succeeded in imitating the touch sensation of a ball and the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings.

Augmenting the Web interface?

The device is fairly easy to install and can be plugged directly in to the target computer. Coupled with a 3-D range image (‘time of flight’ -ToF) camera, which are already in use in various fields such as video games and web browsing, an ‘Aireal’-type device could in the long term be used to remedy the lack of interactivity and feedback with ToF cameras and holographic imaging. And since the box that produces the air vortices can be reduced or enlarged, the researchers are not ruling out the possibility of miniaturisation for use in small devices such as smartphones and tablets.

By Guillaume Parodi