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Touchable Holograms

2009 August 7

Previously the realm of science fiction, researchers at the University of Tokyo have created an improved holographic projector – a device able to create images in midair that you can touch… sort of.

The device, currently on display at SIGGRAPH, the well-known computer graphics and technology conference, functions by displaying the holographic image in midair (not new technology) and using focused ultrasonic waves to simulate a tactile response.

In other words, it fires ultra high-frequency sound at your fingers in the shape of whatever it is that the projector is displaying so that it feels like you’re touching something real.  Demonstrations at the conference include a ball, raindrops, and a small creature running around your palm.

As this technology improves, I can see the training applications explode – imagine being able to put employees in a virtual environment that they can actually touch.  I only wonder if such improved fidelity will actually improve training outcomes.  Some evidence suggests that high-fidelity training distracts away from the underlying psychological changes you’re aiming for.

For example, take a training scenario where all employees need to use a new machine (let’s call it a widget-machine).  If you a lot of training design effort into making an extremely realistic model of a widget-machine, employees will indeed be able to use that machine perfectly well.  But what if that machine changes?  An employee trained on a lower fidelity widget-machine may be better able to generalize what they learned during training to the new machine, since they had to generalize to the old machine too.

I suppose only time will tell.  All I know is that I want one for my lab to see what it can do.  Grant applications, here we come…

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