Revolutionizing Haptic Sensory Technology: Ultraleap’s Integration into Automobiles and VR Devices

In May 2019, Ultrahaptics and Leap Motion became Ultraleap (not to be confused with Magic Leap, which operates in the same space). “I think it’s a long-term vision for XR,” Carter said of the deal. Founded by a pair of University of Bristol students three years after Leap Motion, Ultrahaptics harnesses ultrasound waves to create tactile feedback. Much like the earlier Leap Motion product, it would be possible to mount a device to the front of the visor, but directionality is important. The Leap Motion tech determines your hands’ orientation in space, while haptics provide tactile feedback when you come into contact with the virtual object.

In May 2019, Ultrahaptics and Leap Motion joined forces to become Ultraleap, a new entity in the tech space. This change marked the union of two tech startups, with Ultrahaptics being the acquiring party, purchasing Leap Motion for approximately $30 million.

After missing the opportunity to meet at CES due to the pandemic, I was able to sit down with Tom Carter, co-founder and CEO of Ultrahaptics, at a secluded coffee shop during MWC 2024. Carter, who had previously served as CTO of Ultrahaptics for six years, now holds the same position at Ultraleap.

The acquisition’s main objective is to combine the technologies of both companies. The initial focus is on the emerging world of extended reality (XR). Carter stated, “I believe XR is a long-term vision for this deal. It’s not limited to one specific area, as it encompasses various elements. Our long-term goal is to interact with 3D content.”

The joint company is working to integrate the two into a device that gives you tactile feedback as it tracks your hands. The resulting product would be one that brings a sense of weight to the virtual landscape. The lack of sensory feedback has been a major issue in the space.

Leap Motion, established in 2010, is the elder of the two startups. Based in the Bay Area, the company gained recognition for its Leap Motion Controller, a compact device equipped with two IR cameras and infrared LEDs for hand tracking. Their primary target was the VR market after Oculus launched its first headset to Kickstarter backers.

Initially, the product was not very sophisticated as it was designed to be mounted on the front of a VR visor. Unfortunately, Leap Motion’s initial hype did not translate into long-term success, in part due to the decision of many companies to develop their own in-house hand-tracking solutions.

Founded three years after Leap Motion, Ultrahaptics was established by two students from the University of Bristol. Their ultrasound-based technology creates tactile feedback, which is currently focused on two key areas. The first is automotive, where they have partnered with carmakers to use console-based speakers that produce tactile sensations for in-car heads-up displays.

The second area is XR, where Leap Motion’s technology plays a crucial role. The joint company is working on a device that not only tracks your hands but also provides tactile feedback. This device, also known as a “puck”, aims to bring a sense of weight to the virtual space. This is especially important as the lack of sensory feedback has been a fundamental issue in the VR industry.

VR hands

Certainly, Ultrahaptics is not the first company to tackle this problem. One popular solution involves wearing gloves equipped with traditional haptic motors, similar to those found in smartphones. However, Carter believes that adding more wearable technology is not what most XR users are looking for.

Instead, the company has developed a compact device that sits on the floor and sends ultrasound waves upwards towards the hands. This is not the only way the technology can be used, as it can also be mounted on the front of a VR visor. In this configuration, the directionality of the ultrasound waves is critical. If they are coming from below, they create a sense of resistance. If they are coming from the user, however, the force moves in the opposite direction.

At CES last month, Ultraleap showcased Sensation Designer, a crucial step towards commercializing the joint technology. This software package allows developers to incorporate haptic experiences into XR. One immersive demo featured a virtual bonsai tree, where Leap Motion’s technology determined the orientation of the hands in space, and the haptics provided tactile feedback when interacting with the object.

In its final form, this technology has the potential to enhance the virtual experience, not just in gaming but also in various enterprise applications.

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Dylan Williams

Dylan Williams is a multimedia storyteller with a background in video production and graphic design. He has a knack for finding and sharing unique and visually striking stories from around the world.

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