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It’s well known that the UK loves talking about the weather. According to some anthropological studies, it is thought that over 90% of Brits have talked about the weather in the past six hours, with about 38% having talked about the weather in the last hour alone!

At the BBC, we have been delivering the weather for over 65 years. In that time, audiences have gone from radio and TV weather forecasts, to accessing weather forecasts online and via mobile apps, and most recently have even started receiving personalised weather forecasts by speaking to their smart speakers.

Part of what we do at the BBC is looking at how we can innovate by using new and emerging technologies and working with digital and technology companies to experiment with new types of audience experience. As new technologies continue to emerge, we wanted to see how they might enable our audiences to receive their weather forecasts in a completely new way.

For our most recent project, we have used haptic (touch) technologies and created an experimental device that lets you use your sense of touch to ‘feel’ the weather forecast. Imagine a situation where when you wake up in the morning and before you leave the house, instead of reaching for your phone to check the weather for the day, you place your hand in an alarm clock type device, ‘feel’ the weather forecast, and then know whether or not you need to take an umbrella with you for the day ahead.

The device that we created uses ultrasound waves to simulate - by touch - different weather conditions, ranging from the feeling of rain falling on your hand to the glow of sunshine on your skin and the sensation of snow falling on a winter’s day. We designed an internal prototype to give us an idea of how haptic technology like this might be used in the future to enable audiences to use their sense of touch to experience BBC content, such as a weather forecast, in a completely new way.

Working with my colleague Spencer in R&D, who helped design and build the device, we put it to the test by showing it to a few people around our offices. Here is some footage of some of my colleagues (including some of our BBC weather presenters) trying it out for the first time and an explanation of how it works:

Our 'feel the weather forecast' experiment

What is haptic technology?

Haptic technology is anything that uses the sense of touch to communicate. Haptics, in it its simplest form, has been with us for a while: almost all of us are now used to feeling our phone vibrate in our pockets to let us know that someone is trying to call or send us a message. Vibrating games controllers have also been used for many years to enhance the experience of computer games – for example, the controller vibrating against your hands as something explodes around you or to give you the sensation of being hit in a battle.

Our 'feel the weather forecast' haptics prototype device

Ultrasound waves

As haptics technology advances, so does the range of possible ways that it could be used in our daily lives.

The haptic touch technology that we experimented with was developed by the company Ultraleap and uses ultrasound, sound frequencies that the human ear can’t detect, to project sensations directly onto someone’s hands.

A picture that shows the ultrasound waves coming from our device impacting water

The feeling that these ultrasound waves deliver is similar to what you might imagine your hand would feel like if you had very focused and precise tiny jets of air being blown onto your skin. The result is that you can create a range of very accurate touch sensations.

Hand tracking technology in our device also enabled us to detect when a person had their hand under the device and the exact position of their hand as they moved it around, all of which enabled us to create a precise sensation of touch.

The underside of our device, with 256 small ultrasound speakers that help simulate the feeling of different weather conditions and a hand tracker to determine exactly where a user’s hand is

We combined this feeling of touch with some visuals (3D holographic type animated images of BBC weather forecast symbols, such as the sun shining or rain falling) to make the experience more immersive.

Using the sense of touch to enhance TV, films and radio

Whether it is the ultra-high definition footage of nature documentaries on a big screen TV, cinema style surround sound speakers at home or the rich digital worlds that virtual reality (VR) headsets can now deliver, new technologies are making our media experiences far more immersive and realistic than ever before.

To date, much of this increased immersion and realism has relied on two of our five senses: sight and hearing. However, with the advances in haptics touch technology, we might start to see completely new ways for us to interact with and experience media content on our digital devices.

Touch sensations could be delivered by using existing devices (whether that is a vibrating remote control in the living room or the mobile phones that we carry everywhere); new devices using the type of ultrasound technology that we experimented with or vibrating Minority Report style gloves could become common place. Haptics technology could also become crucial in an augmented reality world, allowing us to feel and control virtual holographic objects that appear floating in front of us - you might interact with a news article that floats in front of you as you walk to work, or press the virtual play button and get a feeling of haptic feedback on a holographic version of BBC iPlayer.

Who knows, perhaps in the future, haptic touch technology might be a way to make your favourite drama, sporting event, nature programme or documentary an even more immersive experience than it is today. For sporting events, imagine being able to feel the power behind a tennis serve at Wimbledon, the sensation of a football being kicked in the FA Cup final, or the impact that a competitor feels when being hit in an Olympics Taekwondo fight. Imagine being drawn into the tension of a drama such as Bodyguard by feeling David Budd’s car skid round a corner during a car chase. The technology could also be used in nature documentaries, perhaps to help give you a feeling of what it might be like to brush up against the leaves in a rainforest or feel an exotic animal whilst you see it on screen in high definition.

Another potential benefit of haptic touch technology is the ability to improve the accessibility of media content for people with visual or hearing impairments. Being able to feel the weather forecast or other content and experiences via touch could potentially open up a useful and powerful way for them to access important information.

The applications for haptics technology and media content are wide ranging – with our experiment, we have only just touched the surface of what might be possible in the future.

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