The AIREAL device emits a ring of air called a vortex towards a user’s hand. The vortex can impart a force on the user’s hand, enabling a range of dynamic free air sensations.

New system could be used for video-gaming or to enhance gesture-based interfaces

Researchers from Disney have created a new type of interactive computer interface that fires vortexes of air at users so that they feel the impact of their gestures.

Dubbed Aireal, the system is comprised of miniature air cannons that are connected to 3D sensor cameras.  Air is fired as vortexes – ring-shaped emissions that keep their shape and speed over large distances, allowing for precise targeting.

Disney say their technology will allow users to “feel virtual objects, experience dynamically varying textures and receive feedback on full body gestures, all without requiring the user to wear a physical device.”

The system could be hooked up to a range of applications – from games to operating systems – in order to improve how users interact with their computer.

One experimental set-up use a scaled down Aireal device attached the device to a tablet to create a “persistent haptic space” around the device. In essence this meant that invisible buttons were created around the device: locations in the air that users would feel feedback from (created by air vortexes) when swiping or tapping.

Another implementation combined the Aireal with a projector allowing the researchers to combine the image of a butterfly with a physical sensation. When users placed their hands under the image it became projected onto their skin, but they also felt the draft of its wings – created by the Aireal system.

On top of this the Aireal system is made partly from 3D-printed parts. Five two-inch speakers are used to create the pulses of air, housed within in a 3D-printed enclosure and aimed by a 3D-printed nozzle.  

All of this rests upon a “pan and tilt gimbal structure” capable of 75 degrees of targeting. The researchers imagined such a system positioned above a television allowing for a Kinect-like gaming experience with enhanced feedback. You could see objects approaching you on screen and then – with Wii-like gestures – bat them away, feeling them hit your hands.  

Past interactive systems that have used air to create sense impressions have relied on jets, but Disney say that their stable and precise vortexes are much more precise, allowing sensations to be “high resolution” up to distances of 1.5 metres.

“As we continue exploring technologies that blur the boundary between the real and the virtual world, we hope that this work will encourage researchers and practitioners to create new and exciting applications of free air haptic displays,” said the researchers in their paper. “We have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible.”