February 29, 2024

Video calls already allow us to see and hear each other over any distance. Now two technologists want to bring touch there too.

Sly Spencer-Lee and Isaac Castro García are the founders and co-CEOs of Emerge, a Los Angeles-based hardware startup that develops products that allow users to feel things in virtual reality (VR) with their bare hands. The technology allows users to reach out to high-five, shake hands, or pass objects — for example, by playing a game of catch — over distance.

Their pitch: Feeling touch in virtual interactions can convey some of the emotional intimacy and connection of face-to-face. “The deepest level of human communication you can have is that which has a strong emotional connection,” Spencer-Lee tells Quartz. Emerge’s goal is to change users “connect with the people they care about,” especially in moments of need.

The company’s key product, the Emerge Wave-1, is a tabletop the size of a closed laptop. The Wave-1 uses ultrasonic waves to create the sensation of touch. “When we started Emerge, we wanted to build something that would be natural and intuitive, so the user wouldn’t have to worry about how to control it,” Castro García tells Quartz. When users pass their hands over the device, the ultrasonic waves translate virtual objects they can see in a VR/AR headset or on a paired TV screen – more on that below – and haptic technology then simulates touch.

The technology is powered by generative artificial intelligence models trained to understand human emotions, linking them to a virtual hologram-like sense of touch. “It’s clear that new hardware is needed to fully utilize the potential of AI,” says García.

Emerge’s proposition has also caught the interest of major consumer brands: This year, the company announced partnerships with both Sony and Disney to bring tactile experiences to their products.

The deal struck with Sony will bring Emerge’s Wave-1 device to Sony Smart TVs, which allows users to hold calls on the screen—no VR headset required—with a sense of touch. “Imagine having a video call with your children or grandchildren who live in another city, and being able to throw a virtual ball back and forth,” Sony vice president Nick Colsey said in a statement at that point. “Adding a tactile layer to virtual communication can not only help us feel closer over distance, but also open up new possibilities for shared experiences from afar.” Meanwhile, Disney’s June deal with Emerge gives touch to the entertainment company’s franchises.

The Emerge Wave-1 launched in beta in 2022, and while it currently supports Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset, its products are still limited. But Emerge is looking to video communication platforms, betting that mixing haptics with motion AI can make distant communication more meaningful. “We’re not trying to replace the human-to-human experience. We want to provide better sensory experience when physical presence is not possible, so we can improve connections,” says Spencer-Lee.

This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023a series that highlights the people who are deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good around the world. Get the full list here.

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