Author: Luca Serino, Portfolio Manager, Sandaire

On any given day, we meet a lot of interesting people and companies at Sandaire – you may have read some earlier interviews with TruRating and Astia Angels. I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with Tom Carter, Chief Technology Officer of Ultrahaptics.

Haptics is the science of applying touch sensation and control to interact with computer applications. The word originates from the Greek haptein meaning “to fasten”. Ultrahaptics is developing ultrasound haptics technology so you can feel things in virtual reality (VR) using mid-air touch. Ultrahaptics, based in Bristol, England, was born while Tom was still at university. He turned his work in the field of haptics into a doctoral project which eventually led to the founding of a company in November, 2013.

Luca Serino (LS): How would you describe Ultrahaptics to the general consumer?

Tom Carter (TC): We create technology that lets you feel things without actually physically touching anything. We enable you to feel controls such as buttons and sliders, enhance gestures with tactile feedback and allow you to interact in a natural way with virtual objects. We even let you feel things that don’t exist, like a magic spell that casts lightning out of your hands.

We use ultrasound to project tactile sensations through the air and directly onto your hands, so you don’t need to touch, wear or hold anything. We are working to build controls into automotive and consumer products to make public displays more interactive and provide the sense of touch in VR and augmented reality (AR).

LS: How did you first came upon the idea of developing the technology?

TC: I was doing a research project in the final year of my Computer Science degree at the University of Bristol. It was 2010 and the Microsoft Kinect had just launched, marking the first time consumers had been able to control a computer with their hands but without being able to feel anything. You just waved your hands around in front of the web-cam.

Every option to bring back that sense of touch required the user to hold or wear a device. This added friction to any experience – you had to get dressed in order to interact. I was looking for something that would enable people to walk-up-and-use any system without friction. My then supervisor and later co-founder, Professor Sriram Subramanian, had the idea that you may be able to feel ultrasound. That was the start of many years in the research lab.

LS: How did you build the support and team around you?

TC: I was doing a research project in the final year of my Computer Science degree at the University of Bristol. It was 2010 and the Microsoft Kinect had just launched, marking the first time consumers had been able to control a computer with their hands but without being able to feel anything. You just waved your hands around in front of the web-cam.

Every option to bring back that sense of touch required the user to hold or wear a device. This added friction to any experience – you had to get dressed in order to interact. I was looking for something that would enable people to walk-up-and-use any system without friction. My then supervisor and later co-founder, Professor Sriram Subramanian, had the idea that you may be able to feel ultrasound. That was the start of many years in the research lab.

LS: Was it tough to accept all the advice and delegate control?

TC: For me the hardest part was knowing which advice to listen to. When I asked five different people I would usually get five completely different opinions back. I found the best solution was to grow my own knowledge as fast as possible through books, blogs, podcasts and YouTube. That gave me the ability to form an opinion on what to do and then use my advice network to calibrate that decision. Rather than asking “what should I do?” I could present a plan and ask for feedback or ask a targeted question on the aspect I am least sure of. I think this is easier for the advisor and you get better advice.

I don’t have a problem delegating control. I really enjoy giving someone more responsibility and watching them succeed. The bigger challenge has been keeping pace with the growth of the company and being aware of when I need to delegate more. The aim is to get the timing right and hand off properly with clear guidance and expectations.

LS: In your opinion, how is consumer behaviour changing?

TC: There is far more appreciation and expectation for good interface design today than ever before. Just a decade ago, the limiting factor to your efficiency in using a computer was the speed of the processor – how long you sat looking at loading bars! Today we have an abundance of computing power. My iPhone has 10 times the computing power of the gaming PC I had when I started work on Ultrahaptics.

Now the limiting factor is the speed of the interface – how long it takes a user to figure it out and achieve the task at hand. This accelerated with the adoption of touch screens, on which the interface can completely change form and function to match the task. It will accelerate even further as we move into three dimensions. By the time VR and AR go mainstream, it will certainly not be acceptable to pick up an object using a controller, people will demand to use their hands.

Virtual Reality Headset

LS: Why is touch so important?

TC: Your brain processes the sense of touch 1.7x faster than visual information. Touch is also a lot faster than audio. It is difficult to appreciate how much we rely on the sense of touch, mainly because we cannot simulate losing it like we can with sight (close your eyes) and hearing (wear ear plugs).

Take the example of picking up a coffee mug from the desk in front of you. 95% of the task is completed with visual information, you watch your hand move closer to the mug. Once your hand is within a few centimetres you can’t see whether you are touching the mug or not. It is impossible to do that final 5% through sight; you are entirely dependent on touch to know when you can lift it up.

Transfer this simple challenge over to virtual and augmented reality where you will be surrounded by virtual objects and you will need haptic feedback just to complete fundamental tasks like picking things up.

LS: Will we witness the end of the ‘button’ in the near future?

TC: No, I don’t think so, but they will become less prevalent. The purpose of any new interface technology should not be to replace everything before it but to provide more options so that you can use the right tool for the job. I cannot see a better option for quickly entering large amounts of text than a keyboard, and a big red button is by far the best option for triggering an emergency shutdown.

That said, as augmented reality matures you will see more and more physical interfaces being replaced by virtual interfaces. If everybody has augmented vision, why build a physical interface that cannot be changed or updated? Instead you can create a digital layer over the real world and Ultrahaptics will let you feel it.

LS: Ultrahaptics is focussed on making VR and AR experiences more immersive. Can you provide some of the best examples of this?

TC: One of my favourite projects so far has been our collaboration with Dell, Nike and Meta. It showed the future of the workspace. Once we have augmented reality glasses there will be no need for monitors on our desks, you can have as many virtual monitors as you like for free in augmented reality! Better yet, you can move away from presenting content on a 2D display and have it sat in front of you in 3D.

We created a Dell system with integrated Ultrahaptics technology and Meta augmented reality glasses. You can sit and design a new Nike trainer and best of all, touch it and feel it.

Click here to watch the video.

LS: In May 2017, Ultrahaptics announced it had completed a series B round of Investment of £17.9 million ($23 million) – what advice would you give aspiring tech entrepreneurs in developing successful investor relationships?

TC: Start building relationships before you need money. It is easier both for the investor to understand you and your company and for you to evaluate the investor when you aren’t pitching to them. It is a very different sort of conversation. I was regularly advised that investment rounds take many months of meetings while news articles make it seem like funding happens overnight. If you build relationships over time, the reality can be somewhere between the two.

LS: What is in store for Ultrahaptics in future?

TC: 2017 brought a really big milestone for us as our first customer started shipping a product featuring our technology. It certainly makes a difference having a product out in the wild and running royalties coming in! There are a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline. I wish I could tell you but you will have to watch this space!