A Japanese startup is betting that its “touchable” 3D technology will have a vast array of applications, potentially allowing smartphone shoppers to evaluate the fabric of clothes they want to buy online and gamers to feel virtual objects.

Founded in 2014 as a technology transfer venture company for the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture-based Miraisens Inc. says its haptic technology would make it possible to get a realistic sensation of touch through subtle changes of vibration patterns traveling through the fingertips.

Miraisens founder and Chief Technology Officer Norio Nakamura, the developer of the technology, says the important thing is “how we trick our brain, which means what stimulus patterns should be given.”

Similar devices using haptic technology, which creates the sense of touch through force, vibrations or motion, have been developed by other companies to achieve just that, but they are generally expensive and inconvenient.

Miraisens says its technology, dubbed 3D Haptics, can eliminate these worries as it is lightweight and small enough to be embedded in a game controller or TV remote at an affordable price.

Miraisens Chief Executive Officer Natsuo Koda notes that haptics itself is not a novel technology; it has already been used in the flat and stationary home button on some iPhone models, Koda explains, which provides the clicking sensation when we press the button. But the firm’s own technology can re-create a variety of sensations of touch in a 3D world, rather than on a surface — a technology Koda says is “the world’s first.”

Business vision

The envisioned applications of 3D Haptics are vast, ranging from virtual reality, augmented reality and video games; smartphones that allow users to feel the fabric of clothes sold on e-commerce platforms; robotics, such as remote control of unmanned construction machinery with realistic sensations; and medical usage, allowing a surgeon to feel a scalpel cutting through an organ in a 3D simulator.

The company’s technology could also significantly enhance safety training in the construction sector, Koda says.

“We want to use our technology in training where the touch sensation makes it more effective,” he contends. In the VR environment, factory workers may be able to feel parts click into place during their assembly training.

Nakamura believes that his invention could change the way we communicate with others — or even change society — by being able to deliver virtual handshakes with feeling, or facilitate the broader transfer of skills, for example.

Koda estimates that the company’s sales will hit several billion yen in three to four years’ time and eventually top more than ¥10 billion due to its possible applications in various industries.

In the near term, Koda says the company plans to release its original game controller equipped with 3D Haptics between this winter and next year. It could cost less than ¥20,000, he says.

Asked what game genre Koda has in mind, he described motor racing as one example — allowing players to feel a sense of losing control of the steering wheel.

In five to 10 years, the company wants to replace vibrations with electric stimulus. This technology, which is smaller than the 3D Haptics system, could be added to a wristwatch, Koda says, so “people would be able to virtually feel different touch sensations without vibrations just by wearing the watch in the future.”

A step forward

Conventional haptic devices used in VR include robotic arms, ultrasound wave emitters and body suits, which Koda says are expensive, heavy or not portable.

If his company’s 3D Haptics system, which is roughly 20 millimeters by 20 millimeters by 15 millimeters and weighs just 14 grams, were fitted in a PlayStation game controller as a part, the part on its own would cost less than ¥1,000.

The system does has some caveats. Koda says that it is possible to produce sensations like “warm” and “cool” but not “hot,” “very cold” or “a prick of pain.”

How it works

The technology applies certain stimulus patterns to our fingers, which are delivered to the brain to create the sensory illusions.

With the vibrations, 3D Haptics can express three elements that make up our tactile sensations: the feelings of force, pressure and surface texture.

In a demonstration for force, Koda instructed reporters to move a dot in a circle on a computer screen using a palm-sized device held in the air. As they did, they experienced fine vibrations surging from the device through the tip of the thumb that gave the sensation of being tugged toward the dot. The force felt almost too strong to resist.

The vibrations can also conjure different textures such as bumpy and coarse, and a feeling that an object has fallen into a groove.

Paradigm shift

In his two decades of research and development, Nakamura had put much of his thought into how to make the technology “smaller” so that it could be incorporated into smartphones and wearables. It was the engineer’s other specialty — brain science — that lit a spark.

The key “does not lie in the strength of the force, but in tricking our brain,” he concluded. That new approach has allowed for the technology’s downsizing.

Regarding the relatively slow pace of development, Nakamura, who holds the basic patent for 3D Haptics, said that previously the market was not ready to embrace the idea.

But now VR is becoming widespread and the advanced image quality of VR headsets is fueling people’s desire to feel the things they see, he added.

Japan’s spending on VR and AR products and services is expected to reach $1.76 billion in 2019 and $3.37 billion in 2022, according to a report published in December by IDC Japan, a research company specializing in information technology. Contents viewing and VR games would lead the consumer market, while training and video production may shape the commercial market, it says.

“People have come to realize that haptics are an indispensable part of VR experiences,” Nakamura says.

The city of Tsukuba, where Miraisens is based, is home to 29 research and educational institutions, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and is hosting the Group of 20 ministerial meeting on trade and digital economy this weekend.

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