With systems like the Kinect and Leap Motion, controlling a gadget with just the wave of a hand is starting to become much more commonplace. The one drawback to those gesture-based devices however is that you never actually touch anything. No matter what you see on the screen, you're still very aware that you're just moving your hands through the air. The Pittsburg branch of Disney Research may be able to change that with Aireal, a low-cost haptic system which fires out small rings of air that allow people to feel virtual objects.

The Aireal system is comprised of modules that track a set target, such as a person's hand, and produce controlled puffs of air that can hit their mark with pinpoint accuracy. When combined with a separate gesture-controlled system, like the Kinect, these bursts of air can be timed so they reach a user's hands at the same moment as an on-screen object would if it were real.

A small 3D depth camera tracks when a user is moving in the direction of an on-screen object, while two motors aim a nozzle in a 75-degree range to match. The air pulses are produced by five speakers, each measuring just two inches (5 cm) and arranged to face inward, forming an open cube. When the speakers are activated, the resulting force is pushed through a flexible nozzle (with grooves on the inside like a gun barrel), which forms the air into a vortex.

By using vortices of air rather than simple air jets, the device can provide a tactile sensation over longer distances and with much greater accuracy. Each module has an effective range of 1.5 m (4.9 ft). Any further and air pulse accuracy dips below 80 percent, though the force can still be felt at twice that distance. The vortices also allow Aireal to change the intensity, direction, and frequency of the pulses quickly to create a wider range of effects.

The research team has plenty of creative uses in mind for its new haptic technology. Besides allowing players to virtually feel the games they're playing, Aireal could provide a physical sense of touch to more mundane actions, like cycling through buttons and menus on a screen.

Aside from the electronic components, each module is made of 3D-printed parts, so can be fairly inexpensive to produce. The design of the Aireal modules also allows for them to be scalable for different devices, so they could be shrunk down for use in smartphones and tablets, or enlarged to project an air vortex across a theater.

Combining the modules with a projector can also produce virtual objects, such as a butterfly, that appear to affect real-life objects in the room with their movement. With multiple air nozzles synced to each other, the Aireal system can provide tactile feedback from every direction for an even more immersive experience. It even mimics the feeling of larger environmental objects, like a flock of birds or a stream of water. In the future, the team hopes to control when each air pulse dissipates more precisely, which could lead to creating invisible 3D shapes in mid-air.

For now, these are just ideas, since the researchers have not revealed any plans for implementing the Aireal system in any specific products just yet. With Disney at the helm though, it's probably a safe bet that this technology will make its way to a theme park attraction at some point. The designers behind Aireal are currently demonstrating their haptic system at the annual SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim, Califronia.

In the meantime, check out the video below to see some examples of various sensations the Aireal can simulate.

View gallery - 10 images