How startup Emerge created sensory tech for Sony and Disney

Video calls already allow us to see and hear each other across 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 developing products that allows users to feel things in virtual reality (VR) with their bare hands. With the tech, users can reach out to high-five, shake hands, or pass objects—say, by playing a game of catch—across distance.

Their pitch: Feeling touch in virtual interactions can transmit some of the emotional intimacy and connection of being face-to-face. “The deepest level of human communication that you can have is that which has a strong emotional connection,” Spencer-Lee tells Quartz. Emerge’s goal is to change how 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 panel about 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 will be natural and intuitive, so the user won’t have to worry about how to control it,” Castro García tells Quartz. When users bring 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 haptics technology then simulates touch.

The technology is powered by generative artificial intelligence models trained on understanding human emotions, and pairing that to a virtual hologram-like sense of touch. “It’s evident that new hardware is needed to fully harness the potential of AI,” García says.

Emerge’s proposition has captured the interest of major consumer brands, too: 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, allowing users to hold onscreen calls—no VR headset required—with a sense of touch. “Imagine having a video call with your kids or grandkids living in another city, and being able to… throw a virtual ball back and forth,” Sony vice president Nick Colsey said in a statement at the time. “Adding a tactile layer to virtual communication can not only help us feel closer across distance, but also open new possibilities for shared experiences from afar.” Meanwhile, Disney’s June deal with Emerge lends touch to the entertainment company’s franchises.

The Emerge Wave-1 was 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 next, betting that bringing haptics into the mix with motion AI could make distant communication more meaningful. “We’re not trying to replace the human-to-human experience. We want to offer better sensory experience when physical presence is not possible so we can enhance connections,” Spencer-Lee says.

This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023, a series that spotlights the people deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good across the globe. Find the full list here.