Editors note: This essay was produced in cooperation with the World Economic Forum with members of its program on Young Scientists, who appeared at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China from September 9-to-11. 

Of the five senses, the one that has survived the longest would have to be touch. While food, music, the visual arts or the delicious scent of perfume have been in our consciousness (and hurting our wallets) for centuries, the humble sense of touch seems inexplicably immune from commercialization.

I’m here to tell you that all this is about to come to an end, thanks to a millennia-old but newly fashionable concept called human computer interaction, or HCI.
HCI is about applying human abilities to the design of tools, systems and environments that are safe, effective and comfortable to use. This in itself isn’t exactly new; it’s been around since Cro Magnon man was fashioning his first flint axe.

So why has HCI’s time now come? In recent decades the big leap has been for artefacts to shift from being passive tools to computer-controlled systems, such as the desktop PC, mobile phone or in-car dashboard. Today, practitioners are looking at how to make interaction as smooth and effortless as possible.

This means giving users as much freedom to think about what they want from an application without having to worry about how to actually perform it. In a relatively simple application, such as email, this means giving people as much scope to think about the message, rather than how to type the individual letters into a phone.  

You may know all this already. What is new, however, is touchless sensing products, and this is where things get interesting. These devices are being launched across a number of industries, including consumer electronics, home, automotive and healthcare industries. We already have desktop controllers that enable us to dispose of our traditional mouse and keyboard and instead control our devices without touching them. We have cars that allow no-hands interaction with the dashboard.

It is impressive stuff, but what has been holding it back is a lack of a sensory feedback to tell you whether your touchless gesturing has paid off. We call this haptic feedback: tactile technology that recreates the sense of touch artificially through the application of force, vibration or movement.

In terms of road safety, haptic feedback for drivers is essential. But the ability to create truly immersive experiences also carries huge significance in other applications—for example gaming or augmented reality, along with the potential for greater user satisfaction.

This is what my work is about. Through a company my team and I founded in 2013, we are developing new ways of recreating a haptic sensation through air by using an array of ultrasonic speakers to create mid-air feeling without touching.

The algorithms of these speakers can target individual fingertips and create different feelings of texture on each finger by changing the frequency of vibration. This precise control enables the creation of virtual buttons, switches and other tactile cues in mid-air. A unique advantage is that users don’t have to wear gloves or a device.

We think we are on to something here. Backed by an EU grant, our technology is being evaluated by some of the largest companies in the world. It’s my personal passion to succeed in this mission, but I am also looking forward to meeting other like-minded scientists at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, in the hope of discovering new ideas for using this technology in combination with others so that it can contribute to solving the world’s challenges.

Subramanian is participating at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China, 9-11 September.