Virtual reality objects that you can FEEL just like on the Star Trek holodeck take a step closer thanks to the new ‘universal law of touch’
- Birmingham researchers studied the “Rayleigh waves” generated by the touch of the skin
- They found that these waves are picked up by the body’s tactile receptor cells
- The way the waves interact led to the creation of a universal law of touch
- The team says this discovery could eventually create tools for “interactive virtual reality”
The Star Trek holodeck, which allows people to physically interact with a virtual world, could be a step forward thanks to a “universal law of touch” discovered by British scientists.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham focused on so-called Rayleigh waves, the energy that passes on the surface of objects when they are hit.
They found that, when it comes to touching, these waves also travel through layers of skin and bone and are picked up by touch receptor cells.
This discovery could be used to create tangible virtual reality objects that we can physically feel despite being not real, although this is very theoretical.
The team says that understanding the fact that our brains can detect Rayleigh waves as our skin comes into contact with other objects could be used to develop virtual reality systems that incorporate the sense of touch, but not specify exactly how.
In Star Trek, the ‘holodeck’ allows the crew of a starship – such as Wesley Crusher played by Wil Wheaton (pictured) – to interact with virtual objects as if they were real
Birmingham researchers say there is a ‘universal law of touch’ that applies to all species and involves how receptors in the brain detect Rayleigh waves caused by touch on the skin.
The team used mathematical modeling of tactile receptors to show how the waves could be found at specific depths within the skin, allowing them to respond.
While the exact effects of waves on receptors vary between species, the relationship between receptor depth and wavelength remains the same.
This discovery allowed scientists to define a universal law that they can use in future research, called the Universal Law of Touch.
They say their discovery is the latest discovery in a line of work dating back over 100 years, supporting the predictions of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Georg von Békésy.
He first suggested that earthquake math could be used to explore the connections between Rayleigh waves and touch.
The team also found that the interaction of the waves and receptors was the same even though the skin had differences in texture caused by age, gender, profession or hydration.
The leader of the study, Dr. Tom Montenegro-Johnson, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Mathematics, said that touch is a primal sense.
Touch was “as important to our ancient ancestors as it is to modern mammals,” but it is also one of the most complex and therefore least understood, he said.
“Even though we have universal laws for explaining sight and hearing, for example, this is the first time we’ve been able to explain touch in this way.”
Current virtual reality systems involve a headset, and the best chance for interaction is through gloves with tactile feedback
Co-author James Andrews, also of the University of Birmingham, added that the principles they defined provide a better understanding of the different contact experiences between a wide range of species.
“For example, if you indent the skin of a 5mm rhino, they will feel the same as a human with a similar indentation – it’s just that the forces needed to produce the indentation would be different,” he explained.
“This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms, as it is related to relative danger and potential harm.”
RAYLEIGH WAVES: PRODUCT THROUGH THE TOUCH
Rayleigh waves travel along the surface of solids after an impact and are a type of acoustic surface wave.
These waves can be produced in materials through touch or other forms of localized impacts, as well as part of an earthquake.
Waves are often used in non-destructive testing to detect defects in products.
Rayleigh waves were first predicted in 1885 by Lord Rayleigh and are part of the seismic waves produced by earthquakes.
A new study has found that they are generated through touch on the skin at various depths and are part of the “universal law of touch”.