Researchers invent artificial skin for real touches
Published on 21.11.2019
Caress the loved one in the distance via the Internet or experience a fight literally up close in a video game – this is supposed to enable an artificial skin that scientists have developed. It allows the wearer to feel touch and pressure, reports the American-Chinese research team in the journal “Nature”. This is made possible by small vibrating electronic elements that are integrated into the synthetic skin.
In addition to seeing and hearing, the sense of touch can become another element of virtual reality, write the scientists led by John Rogers from Northwestern University in Evanston (Illinois, USA). Although there are already devices that evoke sensations of touch, they often work with light electric shocks or are unwieldy because of batteries and many cables.
The touches are generated by touch screen
The synthetic skin developed by the team around Rogers does not require a battery, but is supplied with energy from the outside by radio waves. Large antennas laid in serpentine lines serve to receive the radio waves. Built-in electronics, embedded in elastic plastics and encased in an air-permeable fabric, controls 32 vibrating components or actuators in the standard version of the device. They consist of a flat coil and a plastic ring that encloses a magnet. If current flows through the coil, the magnet begins to vibrate.
Tactile sensations can be generated with the help of a touch screen, explain the scientists. They will be transferred electronically to the artificial skin. The device allows spatially distributed touches of different strength. The scientists show how this works in a video: in it, a woman strokes a touchscreen. A child, talking to the woman from another place via the Internet, can feel the touches thanks to the artificial skin glued to the back.
Use in computer games or in medicine
Use in computer games is also conceivable: artificial skin elements at several points on the body, such as the hand, elbow, arm, chest or back, let a player experience a fight up close. The scientists are also focusing on medical applications. Thus, the device can give the wearer of an arm and hand prosthesis a sense of the object in his artificial fingers. For this, the artificial skin is applied to the upper arm. It then conveys different touch patterns to the person for pen, mobile phone or mug.
In a commentary, also in “Nature”, Xiao-ming Tao of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Kowloon (Hong Kong, China) points out a disadvantage of the device: “Although an optimized actuator requires only 1.75 milliwatts of power, the total power consumption of the technology is still a decisive limiting factor for the sustainable and wireless operation of the platform in practical use”. The group around Rogers states in their study that a further reduction of the vibration elements would significantly reduce the energy requirement.