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Meteoric rise of Ultrahaptics continues as Bristol firm's incredible touchless tech is about to go mainstream

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Written by: David Clensy | Posted 07 December 2016 9:00

Meteoric rise of Ultrahaptics continues as Bristol firm's incredible touchless tech is about to go mainstream

At first there may seem something distinctly “Emperor’s New Clothes” about Ultrahaptics, but it doesn’t take long in their Temple Quay headquarters before you realise that although you may not be able to actually see their real product – it becomes abundantly clear that it could be about to take over the tech world.

In just two years the company has gone from founder Tom Carter tinkering with bits of old parking sensors in a University of Bristol lab to the global leader in an emerging field that nobody had even dreamt about just a few months ago.

Just 12 months ago Ultrahaptics was a start-up company in the Engine Shed, with 18 employees and an intriguing vision. A year on and their vision is becoming infectious among almost every conceivable industry from car manufacturers to hospitals. Their meteoric rise now sees them with 45 employees, with plans to increase their numbers to 110 within a few weeks.

Since April they have boasted an impressive home in the west wing of Glass Wharf in Temple Quay – a place where they can entertain the streaming throngs of would-be clients from industry across the world.

With 65 per cent of their business in California they also now employ 15 people Stateside, and with venture capital backing from big name investors the IP Group and Woodford Investment Management, the opportunity to scale up and bestride the world stage seems almost within as easy reach as one of their “invisible” products.

CEO Steve Cliffe tells me that within the new few years they expect the company to be turning over tens of millions of pounds.

So what on earth is all the fuss about? Well here comes the Emperor’s New Clothes bit.

Imagine if you could reach out and touch an invisible button that wasn’t really there; flick a switch that is as nebulous as the air you’re breathing; or twist a dial that can’t be seen before your eyes, but can be felt between your fingers as they reach out into the air before you.

It was as a young computer science undergraduate at Bristol University that Tom first had the idea of using ultrasound to create gesture-based controllers that not only respond to the users movements, but also interact back – giving the user the impression that they can feel a real device at their finger tips.

“It was around the time Microsoft released the Kinect gesture recognition software, and we were all excited about the possibilities it opened up,” Tom explains. “But it quickly became clear that people don’t feel comfortable with controlling devices with gesture alone – it just doesn’t feel right to not get any sensation back through your fingers.

“So I started to look at ways we might be able to create that sensation. There’s only three ways to feel a sensation in the air – air jets, but they diffuse far too quickly, air vortices, but they’re not very controllable, or by ultrasound – literally getting sound waves to the right frequency so that they reverberate against your skin giving the sensation of a physical object.”

Tom spent six years developing the technology using hardware almost entirely available over the counter – with old parking sensors from cars formed in a grid and rigged up to a laptop running carefully developed software to manipulate the ultrasound waves working in combination with gesture recognition hardware.

He knew there was commercial potential in the technology, but it was only when he went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, shortly after setting up the company in January 2014, that he realised just how profoundly popular it was going to become.

“I’d gone to get some feedback from the industry experts,” he said.

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“But it quickly became clear that everybody there was fascinated with the idea – everyone seemed to want it for their product.”

After an introduction from one of his university professors, Tom convinced Steve Cliffe, an experienced businessman with a background at Plessey Semiconductors, to become chief executive, allowing him to focus on development work as chief technology officer.

“After seeing what Tom was doing, it didn’t take me too long to agree to leave my old job behind and come onboard,” Steve said.

“It was immediately exciting. The potential for the technology was almost immediately obvious.

“I could see great potential to be able to walk into a dark room and just having to hold out your hand so that the light switch comes to you, and I was excited by the idea of being able to develop switches for manufacturing or even ovens that couldn’t get hot to touch because they didn’t really exist as physical objects,” Steve adds.

“One of the most exciting ideas for me is that you could create virtual buttons in hospital lifts so they’re not being touched by everyone who enters the building with the clear dangers for spreading infections that poses.

“The same would be true for touchless ATMs.”

What neither Tom nor Steve had been able to predict was quite what a reaction the technology would get from the automotive industry.

“We knew the car manufacturers had been interested in developing gesture recognition technology to replace dashboard switches for some time,” Tom says.

“That’s right - BMW’s Seven Series is already using gesture recognition software,” Steve adds. “And we had thought that some car manufacturers might show an interest in our idea, but what we hadn’t been prepared for was quite how many would be keen to use this in their cars – there are a lot of different firms who are very keen to integrate this technology into their future models.”

The business model for Ultrahaptics is beautifully simple. They have created a device called a TOUCH, which for just $2,000 allows a firm to start developing their own “haptic” gesture models, using the company’s simple Sensation Editor software.
The real profit for the Bristol company comes via royalties – in the form of tiny chips that the external companies would then buy in order to install the technology into each unit, whether that be a car or a lift, an oven or a machine – these chips will be identical.

It means profits can scale up rapidly for Ultrahaptics as the technology trends around the globe. Unsurprisingly they already have 40 patents around the world in order to try to protect their intellectual property from imitators.

There are even more exciting times ahead as the firm grows rapidly, with the chips currently in the process of being scaled-down to one-fortieth of their current size, allowing them to be seamlessly integrated into dashboards and hardware.

But Steve and Tom are clear that Bristol will continue to be Ultrahaptics’ home, saying that although new offices may open around the world, Bristol will continue to be the firm’s HQ – or as Tom puts it “the core”.

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The next big step for the technology is for it to be integrated with the current dramatic rise in the Virtual Reality sector – and Tom and Steve are this week preparing to head out to San Francisco’s VR-X conference to show industry experts from around the world just what a dramatic difference Ultrahaptics’ technology can make to the immerse qualities of VR.

“VR is amazing when you put the headset on,” Tom says.

“But where it’s always been a bit of a let-down is when you put your hand out and immediately start grabbing at thin air; it’s an immediate reminder that it’s all just virtual.

“People have tried getting around the with all sorts of gloves and sensors clipped to your fingers, but we think the potential for integrating our Ultrahaptics technology with VR could be immense.”


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