A partnership to advance innovation

Two people wearing Ultraleap's virtual reality headsets

An EPSRC-supported collaboration between UCL and SME Ultraleap is helping to create the future of interaction technologies.

We’re 18 months into our five-year Prosperity Partnership, and we’re already so proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. Thanks to the partnership, we can act on our blue-sky thinking and address a complex and fascinating challenge – the future of interaction.

Ultraleap is the leader in hand tracking and mid-air haptics solutions. Our technologies remove the boundaries between virtual and physical worlds. Rather than being hampered by hardware – controllers, keypads, touchscreens – we enable people to interact naturally with their hands.

Headquartered in Bristol, we have an office in Silicon Valley, California and staff worldwide. Initially named Ultrahaptics, we became Ultraleap when we acquired the US hand tracking company Leap Motion in 2019.

UCL’s Multi-Sensory Devices (MSD group) is an interdisciplinary group of researchers with a core interest in creating new forms of interactive multisensory user experiences through developing and exploiting novel sensor and actuator technology.

Exploring vibrations

We were working together at the University of Bristol on an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) responsive mode project investigating how you could create tactile feedback in the air.

The inspiration for the research was the vibrations you feel in your chest from music at a rock concert. Sri wanted to investigate if sound waves could be used to recreate the sensation of touch. We saw the potential of the technology and, with Ben Long, founded the company in 2013.

Nearly 10 years on, Ultraleap’s customers use hand tracking and haptics in many ingenious ways.

The airline Lufthansa adopted hand tracking in their virtual reality training programme for cabin crew. Point-of-sale terminals in supermarkets or fast food restaurants have been made touchless, removing the need to touch the screen, making them more hygienic. The automotive giant, Stellantis, whose brands include Jeep, DS, Dodge, Peugeot and Citroen, used Ultraleap’s solutions to develop a dashboard for DS Automobiles’ flagship concept car. DS wanted to improve driver experience by reducing the use of touchscreens.

A central armrest in a car with gesture control powered by Ultraleap’s advanced hand tracking and mid-air haptic feedback technologies

A central armrest in a car with gesture control powered by Ultraleap’s advanced hand tracking and mid-air haptic feedback technologies. Credit: Ultraleap

UCL and Ultraleap have a very close and complementary relationship. Ultraleap has funded studentships in the MSD lab. Two PhD students from the group are now working at Ultraleap, thanks to Future Leaders Fellowships awarded by UK Research and Innovation.

We’re used to collaborating on large projects too. We’re both part of the team working on Touchless, a four-year research and development project funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme.

Pushing the boundaries of technology

With the Prosperity Partnership, we can really push the boundaries of the technology and tackle fundamental challenges to help us continually innovate.

Currently, the speakers that emit the ultrasound waves must be set in a fixed arrangement. However, if we can remove them from this arrangement, it opens up scores of possibilities, such as embedding them in a flexible material like clothing. The speakers must operate independently but be linked by a common goal, like the behaviour of ants in a colony.

The Prosperity Partnership allows for research at this very low level of technology readiness. It facilitates innovation beyond what would be standard in a company’s roadmap. We can look at the deeper science, how we could apply game theory or swarm robotics, for example. It is difficult for a commercial organisation to justify investing in such activities with a long-term time horizon.

It gives the MSD lab the chance to conduct pioneering research with Ultraleap’s technology stack, meaning we can test and receive external recognition for our ideas.

Big ambitions

Ultraleap is a company with big ambitions, and the partnership helps us to meet those. It’s powerful to have the academic and commercial leaders in the field working together to move the technology forward.

It’s a British collaboration with global impact. We sell around the world and have more customers in the US and Asia than we do in Europe. Ultimately, the innovations generated by the partnership should create more jobs, generate more intellectual property, and bring more success to all involved.

The Prosperity Partnership has been hugely beneficial to a scaleup like Ultraleap. It has added credibility to our business engagements and provided support for things like patenting. We urge small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) to speak to EPSRC about how it could work for them.

Top image:  Ultraleap Gemini hand tracking is the most robust, flexible hand tracking ever. Credit: Ultraleap

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