Tech breakthrough could see Star Trek-style ‘touchable’ holograms become reality

Virtual reality can be very convincing – until you try to reach out and touch the things that are “in front of you.”

But new research using a little-known property of sound waves promises to create a new generation of VR illusions that you can actually touch – just like the Holodeck in Star Trek.

A team of British researchers have developed a new understanding of how we perceive the sensation of touch – bringing us closer to the idea of completely immersive virtual environments that you can see hear and feel.

The team, from the University of Birmingham, focused their studies on so-called Rayleigh waves – energy which passes over the surface of objects when they are hit.

They discovered that, when it comes to touch, the waves also travel through layers of skin and bone and are picked up by the body's touch receptor cells.

Using mathematical modelling of these touch receptors, the researchers showed how they could be found at specific depths in the skin that allowed them to respond to the waves.

While the exact effects of the waves on receptors vary across species, the ratio of receptor depth to wavelength remains the same, enabling the scientists to pin down a universal law which they can use in future research.

They say their finding is the latest discovery in a line of work going back over 100 years by supporting predictions made by Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Georg von Bekesy who first suggested the mathematics of earthquakes could be used to explore connections between Rayleigh waves and touch.

The team also found that the interaction of the waves and receptors was the same even if skin had differences in texture caused by, age, gender, profession, or hydration.

Study leader Dr Tom Montenegro-Johnson, of the University of Birmingham's School of Mathematics, said: "Touch is a primordial sense, as important to our ancient ancestors as it is to modern day mammals, but it's also one of the most complex and therefore least understood."

"While we have universal laws to explain sight and hearing, for example, this is the first time that we've been able to explain touch in this way."

Co-author James Andrews, also of the University of Birmingham, added: "The principles we've defined enable us to better understand the different experiences of touch among a wide range of species.

"For example, if you indent the skin of a rhinoceros by 5mm, they would have the same sensation as a human with a similar indentation – it's just that the forces required to produce the indentation would be different.

"This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms, since it's connected to relative danger and potential damage."

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