A New Skin for New Realities
Scientists have developed a responsive artificial skin that provides haptic feedback and could be implemented in a range of applications such as medical rehabilitation and virtual reality.
Our sense of touch plays an important role in how we perceive and interact with the surrounding environment. Technology capable of replicating touch, also known as haptic feedback, could potentially enhance our engagement with human-computer and human-robot interfaces.
Researchers at EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL), and Laboratory for Soft Bioelectronic (LSBI) have developed the device, which exploits a system of soft sensors and actuators. This enables the artificial skin to adapt to the exact shape of the user’s wrist and provide haptic feedback in the form of vibrations and pressure.
The soft artificial skin is composed of silicone and electrodes, and through a sophisticated self-sensing mechanism, it can instantly adapt to the wearer’s movement.
The skin’s deformation is measured by strain sensors so that the haptic feedback can be adjusted in real-time to produce a sense of touch as realistic and responsive as possible.
The membrane layer is formed by soft pneumatic actuators, that can be inflated when air is pumped into it. A sensor layer sits on top of the membrane layer and contains soft electrodes, which measure the deformation of the skin and then transmits the data to the microcontroller.
The artificial skin can potentially extend up to four times its original dimensions for up to a million cycles. It is a technology still in development, but it is already possible to foresee the potential applications in which it could take part.
“This is the first time we have developed an entirely soft artificial skin where both sensors and actuators are integrated,” affirmed Harshal Sonar, researcher at EPFL and the lead author of the study.
“This gives us closed-loop control, which means we can accurately and reliably modulate the vibratory stimulation felt by the user. This is ideal for wearable applications, such as for testing a patient’s proprioception in medical applications.”
A further potential implementation for this skin regards the field of extended reality, allowing users to “feel” the surroundings of a virtual environment.
“The next step will be to develop a fully wearable prototype for applications in rehabilitation and virtual and augmented reality,” says Sonar. “The prototype will also be tested in neuroscientific studies, where it can be used to stimulate the human body while researchers study dynamic brain activity in magnetic resonance experiments.”
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