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You Can Now Feel 3D images, Thanks to This New Tech

We can see, feel and hear 3D images.

Imagine an interactive, 3D representation of some object or person or infographic that you can see and touch and hear. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, to be honest, but you don't have to imagine anymore. That tech is here—or something like it—and it achieves all of it just by using sound. Unlike its science fiction counterparts, this 3D imaging technology is not a hologram— it’s called the ‘multimodal acoustic trap display.' It employs a tiny foam bead with about a 1-millimeter radius, and that bead is made out of similar material to packing peanuts, lightweight plastic called polystyrene.
We can see, feel and hear 3D images.
You Can Now Feel 3D images, Thanks to This New Tech
The bead is acoustically trapped in a pocket of low-pressure air created by ultrasound waves coming from transducers on either side of it— essentially levitating the bead in the air. A computer system controls the transducers that are emitting the ultrasonic field, and they can be programmed to manipulate that field to move the low-pressure pocket— and therefore the bead—around in 3D space.

The bead can move so fast along a programmed path through the air that our mind doesn’t register it as a single particle, but instead as a line. See, human eyes can take a moving particle and perceive it as one continuous geometry if the particle completes a shape in under 0.1 seconds, so that’s how fast the bead has to move, at a minimum, for us to see the completed whole object. And on top of this, as the bead is speeding around, it’s being illuminated at various points in its path by different colored lights, so that different parts of the shape it creates can look different colors.

A tactile 3D display, created with sound

Remember, this is still just one bead! And it gets even more wild, which I kinda didn’t think was possible. The acoustic sound that we can hear coming from the visual content can also be created by vibrating the particle in a particular way. And the ultrasonic field around the 3D object can be modified to induce vibrations that you can feel on your skin and register as ‘contact’.
So as you can imagine, the applications for this tech are honestly kinda the stuff of our wildest dreams. It could be used to truly visualize and interact with information, making it possible for us to touch it and even perhaps manipulate data and ask it new questions in real-time. Like, picture a computer screen with your experimental results on it, and then picture those results in 3d, and you can feel them and move them around with your hands instead of clicking around your screen with a mouse.

It's all very Tony Stark-y. It could definitely be used in entertainment to create an experience you can interact with and feel and see and hear without the need for any kind of headset. And in the same vein, in the future, it could be an ultra-realistic way to spend time with loved ones who are far away. No more being confined to a tiny screen, you could actually interact with them even if they’re on the other side of the world! And some experts even think this could one day revolutionize 3D printing.

You could load the beads in the system with some kind of substance that they can deposit to fabricate a 3D item. Others even say that eventually, systems like this could produce images of things that look so real, and that you can touch, and that makes a sound, and that are so realistic they’re almost impossible to tell from the real thing.
But there are still a few drawbacks: the display can’t currently give you the visual, tactile and high quality directional audio cues all at once, so some modifications do need to be made for a truly immersive experience. And of course, the visuals the team has achieved so far involve only one bead. And the images are really small, only about 10 centimeters large— because that’s about how big the air pocket is that the bead is trapped in. And as you can see, they’re relatively simple, especially when compared to the jaw-dropping applications the researchers hope this tech could eventually achieve.

But it’s an incredibly impressive and exciting proof of concept nonetheless. The next steps are to enlarge the plane that holds the object, which will require more powerful ultrasonic transducers and most likely—more beads.

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