Microsoft’s Kinect is an amazing device. It can track virtually any motion you make, allowing your real body to interact with an amazing invented world. There’s just one catch: You can’t actually feel anything.
Aireal is the result of research by University of Illinois PhD student Rajinder Sodhi and Disney Reseach’s Ivan Poupyrev. When set by your television or connected to an iPad, this diminutive machine will puff air rings that allow you to actually feel objects and textures in midair—no special controllers or gloves required.
"The sensation is quite pleasant," Poupyrev tells Co.Design. "It’s not like air blowing onto your body. The air ring is a traveling low-pressure bubble. When it collapses, the air from outside rushes in, and it creates force at this particular point. It’s [a] very localized, sharp puff of air."
The machine itself is essentially a set of five speakers in a box—subwoofers that track your body through IR, then fire low frequencies through a nozzle to form donut-like vortices (I imagine the system as a cigar-smoking Microsoft Kinect).
"You have an enclosure with a hole, and you push the air out rapidly," Poupyrev explains. "Because of the friction, some molecules of the air move slower than others. So it spins, and the ring will fly in a stable direction."
In practice, Aireal can do anything from creating a button for you to touch in midair to crafting whole textures by pulsing its bubbles to mimic water, stone, and sand. This is all very neat, but maybe even more important, Aireal has an inherent convenience factor. A single Aireal could conceivably support multiple people, and a grid of Aireals could create extremely immersive rooms, creating sensations like a flock of birds flying by. And for the end user, taking part is never more complicated than standing somewhere. It’s capable of creating a virtual tactile environment without forcing everyone to strap on strange peripherals.
That said, the team recognizes a few technical obstacles. For one, its speaker-powered haptics make noise. Each bubble sounds like a low-pitch knock—which I’m told isn’t unpleasant but isn’t silent, either. The good news is that it may be possible to muffle those sounds in future designs. Secondly, there’s a bit of delay—about 150 ms for the larger system, or about what you can expect from the Kinect itself.
"Because of the delay, we have to be very careful in what kind of interactions we design to match the haptic sensations. It’s a question of design matching interactions," Poupyrev explains.
"The demo we’re doing [now] is very simple. You have a table display with a projection from the bottom. There’s a butterfly that flies around this table. You touch the butterfly, it’s projected on your hand, and you can see a butterfly flapping its wings. If you think about trying to pick up a butterfly, you have to move very slowly. So inherently, people move slowly. In this interaction, the delay isn’t unnatural. It’s part of the story."
In another demo, you can shoot an air gun at a friend. The delay actually builds into the game, like a slow-moving cannonball in Super Mario Bros, the projectile can be dodged, making the experience more fun than getting nailed by a laser gun at light speed.
Indeed, the more you dig into the capabilities of Aireal, the more it sounds like the stuff of sci-fi. So it may be surprising to realize that the principles of creating these air vertices aren’t even new—supersized versions of the tech have been experimented with since the '50s, some with enough power to knock down walls. But what’s unique about the Aireal is its fidelity. The larger prototype can fire tactile sensations up to six feet, which is a sweet spot for standing by a TV. And the tablet-sized version has plenty of range for a desktop.
"The hardest challenge there is to make these air rings consistently," Poupyrev says. "There’s a very narrow range of parameters at which they’re stable. Push them too hard, they collapse early. Not hard enough, they won’t fly. Once you find the balance, though, it always works. It’s the laws of physics. And it’s inexpensive—just five speakers and a box."
A whole new touchable world, powered by five speakers and a box? Amazing, isn’t it?