Three researchers from Bristol-based start-up Ultrahaptics have won the 2016 Royal Academy of Engineering Colin Campbell Mitchell Award for their achievements in bringing virtual reality to life and revolutionising the way people can interact with technology. Three members of the Ultrahaptics team received the award at the Academy’s Annual General Meeting in London last week.

Through the novel use of ultrasound and complex mathematics, the Ultrahaptics team have developed a way to project touch sensations through the air. Users can ‘feel’ virtual buttons and switches, or interact with virtual objects in mid-air, allowing hands-free control of technology from in-car entertainment systems to household devices.

While other tech companies are developing their own versions of haptic feedback, the team’s unique solution represents a breakthrough in the field, which has always previously required users to wear special equipment. Ultrahaptics’ technology enables users to receive tactile feedback without needing to wear or touch anything, and has recently been awarded a patent for the innovation.

Originating in the Bristol Interaction and Graphics (BIG) Laboratory at Bristol University, the award-winning research team consists of Professor Sriram Subramanian, Dr Ben Long, and PhD student Tom Carter. Fascinated by the possibility of producing tactile responses using ultrasound, Tom dedicated his PhD studies to the field under the supervision of computer science Professor Sriram Subramanian, who has since moved to the University of Sussex.

The idea of using ultrasound to simulate touch had been suggested as far back as the 1970s, but had presented a real challenge to programmers. Having proved the concept, the Ultrahaptics team went on to develop a complex suite of algorithms and use an array of ultrasound emitters to produce the sensation of touch, creating three-dimensional shapes and textures in mid-air. Their research has placed the UK at the forefront of human-computer interaction engineering.

The world leading technology presents significant commercial opportunities and has attracted interest from leading companies across the automotive industry. The Ultrahaptics team has been supporting Jaguar Land Rover to develop a mid-air touch system for its Predictive Infotainment Screen. With the up-take of touch screens in cars, the temptation for the driver to take their eyes off the road increases. Ultrahaptics is applying its technology to make gesture control in the dashboards of vehicles significantly safer and more intuitive, by allowing users to control switches and buttons in mid-air.

Speaking of the new opportunities this technology will create, Mike Tobin OBE, Ultrahaptics Chairman says “From home audio to kitchen appliances and from cars to laptops, this team of engineers’ achievement is changing the way we interact with technology in our day-to-day lives.”

Nigel Perry MBE FREng, Chair of the Academy's Awards Committee, said: The Royal Academy of Engineering is delighted to award the Ultrahaptics team for their innovation. Ultrahaptics’ technology has made a pioneering contribution to this hugely exciting field and provides an excellent example of how engineering research and ingenuity continues to advance the interface between society and technology.


Notes for editors

1.    Colin Campbell Mitchell Award. Awarded to an individual or team of up to six engineers either working or studying in the UK. It will be awarded for having made the greatest contribution to the advancement of any field of engineering within the period of the four years prior to the making of the award. A cash prize of £3,000 will be awarded to an individual, up to a maximum of £6,000 for a team. 

The Award commemorates the life and work of one of Scotland's most accomplished marine engineers. Edinburgh-born Colin Campbell Mitchell OBE FRSE (1904-69) had a long and distinguished career with Brown Brothers Engineering where he pioneered the development of the steam catapult for use on aircraft carriers.

2.    Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

We have four strategic challenges:
- Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
- Address the engineering skills crisis
- Position engineering at the heart of society
- Lead the profession


For more information please contact:J

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering

T: 020 7766 0636

E:  Jane Sutton