We’re living in an immaterial world

As an engineering graduate Steve Cliffe (Electrical Engineering, 1985) spent his formative years in and out of university very much in a ‘hands on’ fashion – “learning how to weld, solder and wire things”. But over 30 years later he and his business is at the vanguard of cutting-edge touchless technology. How does this happen?


“You’ve got to believe not in where things are now or in three years, but what’s the end game? Right now, we’re in the middle of a revolution in terms of how we interface with machines. We will look back at keyboards and mice as a solution at a particular point in time in the evolution of how humans interact with their environment. Keyboards and mice will be around for a limited time in that evolution. You look at that and then consider what’s next.

“People, touch, they gesture, and they listen. Tapping on keyboards is a very unnatural thing to do for a human. At two years old I was turning pages in books and playing with blocks. Today, my two-year-old granddaughter says, ‘Hey Alexa, play Frozen.’ If you believe in that evolution then you’ve got to step back and ask, ‘Right, what’s required?’ Voice recognition is required. Gesture control is required.”

^ Steve Cliffe


Taking an (ultra)leap forward

Steve, a 2020 Alumni Laureate Award winner, is the retiring CEO and President of Ultraleap, an innovative technology company which brings together the world’s most powerful 3D hand tracking with 'mid-air haptic technology'. The company has come on leaps – pun intended – and bounds over the last few years and has seen a sharp increase in demand for its virtual touch technologies since the advent of the pandemic.

“We’ve got two technologies. The first one is hand tracking. With a stereoscopic camera in a 3D space, we can track every single finger and every joint in the hand and the wrist which creates optimum interaction in mid-air.

“We also develop mid-air haptics, or mid-air touch as it might be better described - creating buttons and objects in mid-air that you can’t see, but you can reach out and feel. This is done by focusing ultrasonic soundwaves to specific points that we can control.

“One area where hand tracking is essential is virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Think about the future when you’re wearing a pair of AR glasses and you’re walking down the street and suddenly you think, 'I want to find the directions to somewhere'. You don’t want to have to reach into your bag and get out a phone. It would be much better to lift your hands up, a menus pop up in front of you and you interact there and then.”

Driving the driverless revolution

There are two other practical applications which Ultraleap is heavily invested in currently, both of which are generating countless column inches. One is what’s known as ‘non-touch public kiosks’. Think McDonald’s ordering, but where you don’t have to touch the screen to place an order or buying a ticket at a train station. Ultraleap’s technology is turning public touchscreens, touchless. Since the pandemic started, the company have had pilots running across the world with major brands and manufacturers.

The other application is automotive. “Using our technology, when you’re driving a vehicle or in the future when you’re just a passenger in an autonomous vehicle, you can hold your hand out and you will feel a button come to you. These virtual buttons can change the music volume or cabin temperature. You don’t have to look down at a touchscreen to make sure you’re making the right selection.

“And if you do that in conjunction with a head-up display, the button comes to you, you see the display and you can move your hand around menus on the head-up display, so you minimize your eyes off the road – for us it’s about safety.

^ An example of Ultraleap's mid-air haptics in a Citroen DS concept car


The Citroen DS concept car that our technology is embedded in is an incredibly beautiful because it has no dashboard. You just hold your hand out and control the car systems via that mode.

“There’s a lot going on in that space and much of it, especially fully autonomous vehicles, is still a long way off for most people, I think. However, we expect to see our technology in cars ahead of the autonomous vehicles being the norm.”

Taking the first steps from Nottingham

So, what is it that turns an electrical engineer into someone who has been responsible for not just one, but seven start-ups?

“When I left university I went into a technical products role so not actually in engineering – this was mainly because I saw the engineers sat in the offices all day and then I saw the product team flying all over the world, and I thought I’ll do that!

“One of the key things from my time at Nottingham which today I really appreciate is that being an electronic engineering student, I was on a 1-3-1 sandwich course. Which basically meant I did quite a bit of industrial experience, learning how to weld, solder and wire things – really building things. At one point I was even qualified to put together a military wiring loom for an aircraft!

“That was very good grounding in terms of practical applications of what I was doing. Having that experience and understanding is extremely important in terms of where you start your career, and it still helps today.”

A touchless future?

What we all want to know is whether in 10 or 20 years’ time we’ll all be living in a Minority Report/Blade Runner world - what is it that will be the making of touchless technology?

“Many technologists think the technology will sell itself and it’s not about sales and marketing. But it is. The technology very rarely fails. It’s all about having the right products, at the right place, at the right time.

“Who would have thought that you could bring out a mobile phone that was four times the price of the current one and actually sell it and make a business out of it? How do you take a vacuum cleaner that cost £49 and sell one for £300? Apple did it. Dyson did the same. It all comes down to comms and product.”