Haptic Skin: A virtual sense of touch


I think virtual reality is a really
important emerging area of technology, but currently we’re just using our eyes and
our ears as the basis for those experiences and we’ve completely sort of overlooked,
in a sense, the body’s largest organ. The skin is an interface into a
virtual computer-driven reality. It’s much more challenging than
one that’s based on audio or video. So, we’ve been working on a thin, flexible, soft sheet
that can interface directly with the surface of the skin and deliver very fine-resolution spatio-temporal
patterns of force to the surface of the skin – a virtual sense of touch. So, skin is a fascinating biological system in the
sense that it’s bristling with sensors of various types. The skin forms the basis of all our
physical interactions with the outside world and I think it really establishes the deepest, most
emotional types of contacts between individuals. And so, I think it’s a rather untapped interface when you think about VR, AR technologies, and I think it will define kind of the frontier of opportunities in the
continued development of those kinds of technologies. So, it really forces you to kind of reformulate electronics
to be more biocompatible or skin compatible. So, the key unique features of the technology are
that sort of soft skin compatible form factor. The very tiny, miniaturised force actuator
that we’ve been able to develop, a corresponding set of wireless electronics that
allow these actuators to be programmed in real-time with very fast response speed and a wireless
way to deliver power to the device. It’s an interesting sensation, but with
appropriate control of amplitude and frequency, we can reproduce a feeling that’s
very similar to a natural human touch. I think the ultimate would be kind of a full
body suit that would exist in the form of a very thin, spandex-like, stretchable fabric. We currently have devices that embed up to 32 of these individual force transducers, these force actuators. The density of sensory receptors
in the skin is much higher than that, so what we would like to do over
time is to scale the system. We’re pretty excited about this new platform. I think this will represent a very powerful
starting point for the continued development of this kind of skin interface, and I think it will be
important for social interactions via computer systems. We think that they’re going to be powerful in clinical medicine for guiding refined rehabilitation protocols in the context of stroke survivors and amputees and others, and then for gaming and entertainment. I think there are lots of really exciting possibilities
in that space as well, so it’s really materials science driving new technology, spawning a whole array of
applications we think are going to be really exciting.