Feel the metaverse with your bare hands – using ultrasonic waves

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Emerge, a Californian tech start-up, says it is bringing physical touch to the metaverse.
  • Virtual handshakes and objects will feel like real tactile experiences.
  • Ultrasonic waves help create the sensation of touch.
  • Emerge is one of 100 World Economic Forum 2022 Technology Pioneers.

In the metaverse, a virtual handshake will feel real, a tech start-up is promising. The metaverse is described as an immersive version of the internet, where we can experience virtual environments in 3D, instead of viewing digital content on a computer.

Emerge, a company based in California, United States, is developing technology it says allows people to physically feel what they see in virtual reality (VR).

The company is a World Economic Forum 2022 Technology Pioneer – one of 100 start-ups from 30 countries that are driving innovation through cutting-edge technologies.

What does Emerge’s system let you do?

Emerge describes itself as a “social virtual connection” company that is bringing physical touch to the metaverse. When you greet someone in the metaverse with a high-five or handshake, you’ll actually be able to feel their hand, the company says.

When you pick up or hold a virtual object, you’ll be able to feel and interact with the object.

How does it work?

A tabletop panel called the Emerge Wave-1 device uses ultrasonic waves to create the sensation of touch. The panel is roughly the size of a 13” laptop and projects the ultrasonic beams into the air above and around its surface.

When users hold their hands above the panel, the ultrasonic waves map virtual objects they can see in their VR headset. Technology called haptic feedback then translates this into the feeling of touch.

Haptic feedback uses motion like vibration or shaking to simulate touch. For example, haptic technology is what makes your phone vibrate. Haptic motion can also be created using motors and air pockets.

Emerge has paired its Wave-1 device panel with the Meta Quest 2 VR headset (formerly known as Oculus) and its hand-tracking sensors. The ultrasonic waves can reach up to three feet (0.9m) above the panel and spread 120 degrees around it.

Are there limitations?

Because the ultrasonic waves from the Emerge Wave-1 come from one direction only, the range of tactile sensations it can produce is likely to be limited, a review on news site New Atlas suggests.

The range of apps and games the panel can be used with is also currently limited to content from Emerge. Linking Emerge Wave-1 to the wider library of the Quest system would be an “easier sell”, New Atlas says.

Why does touch matter for the future of VR?

Most people are excited about the metaverse, but 78% say they miss the ability to physically touch and interact with people in the virtual world, according to a report from National Research Group, which specializes in entertainment and technology research.

Half of customers said they wanted to physically feel or touch virtual things, like they can in real life.

The ability to use our “bare hands to feel, interact, and physically connect with those who matter most to us” is a key pillar of our human experience in virtual worlds, which will increasingly become the centre of social interaction, Emerge says.

The company hopes that helping people connect emotionally in a natural way, regardless of distance, might be the “next paradigm shift” in human interaction.

By 2026, about a quarter of us will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse working, studying, shopping and socializing, a recent report by research company Gartner predicts. This is expected to benefit businesses. According to JP Morgan, the metaverse is forecast to create a market worth more than $1 trillion in annual revenues.

The 2022 Technology Pioneers will be invited to participate in World Economic Forum workshops and events and high-level discussions during their two years in the community.

They also join the Global Innovators Community, which is part of the Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, where members contribute to shaping new policies and strategies in areas such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and digital assets, the internet of things and autonomous vehicles.

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