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Touchless haptic feedback completely freaked me out at CES

Touchless haptic feedback completely freaked me out at CES

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Audio giant Harman brought a bunch of weird experimental products and ideas to CES this year, headlined by the bizarre Rinspeed Σtos concept car, which I expected to be the coolest thing at its booth. I was wrong.

Tucked away in a corner of Harman's space was a JBL L16 Bluetooth speaker that had been retrofitted with a Leap Motion sensor and a large array of transmitters on top. When I placed my hand about a foot or two above the array, I could feel a tight, focused puff of air hitting it.

The thing is, there's no air.

This proof-of-concept device is actually blasting me with ultrasonic waves that feel freakishly like a stream of air. I'm still kind of weirded out that it isn't, and I'm writing this an hour later.

harman haptics

This is a touchless haptic system, which is exactly what it sounds like: a controller that provides haptic feedback without actually having to touch anything. In Harman's demo device, the haptics are used to tell you which operating mode you're in based on the position and shape of your hand, after which you can use various gestures to control audio playback. For instance, a mid-air "tap" with an outstretched hand pauses or plays a song; turning the hand 90 degrees and swiping left or right changes tracks. In both situations, the sensation of the touchless haptic feedback is different, so you know that the speaker is correctly recognizing what you're trying to do.

But this is purely a concept, and a thrown-together one at that — Harman told me that the project came together right before CES. It's easy to imagine how something like this could be used in a variety of different applications. The company suggests that it could be used in a car to "tap" you as a navigation indicator, for instance. I can also see how it might be great as an accessibility tool, either for the blind or the hard of hearing.

It's a double-edged sword, I suppose: the sensation is freaky enough so that you might get really weirded out if you weren't expecting it or you couldn't identify its source. But as long as we don't all start punking our friends with beam-formed ultrasonics, I'm telling you, I think I just felt the human-machine interface of the future.

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