Artificial skin uses pumped air to simulate a sense of touch
In order for virtual reality systems to be truly effective, users need to actually feel the surfaces that they contact in their computer-generated environments. A new "artificial skin" could help, as it provides a sense of touch via tiny air bladders.
Developed by scientists at Switzerland's EPFL research institute, the skin is made up of clear silicone, and stretchable liquid-solid gallium electrodes. Wrapped around the user's real skin on appendages such as their fingers, it utilizes integrated strain sensors to measure how much it's being deformed as that body part moves.
A hard-wired microcontroller responds to those movements by selectively pumping air in and out of tiny pneumatic actuators within a membrane on the skin. Those bladders can be inflated and deflated at rates of up to 100 cycles per second, simulating the vibration that the wearer would feel as their actual skin moved across a given surface.
Based on the extent to which the body part is moving – and on other factors, such as what's going on in the VR environment – the rate at which the actuators are inflated/deflated is continuously adjusted, to represent different amounts of pressure being exerted upon the user's real skin.
The technology is quite robust, as the material can be stretched four times its relaxed length up to a million times without failing. Additionally, it may ultimately have uses beyond just virtual reality.
"The next step will be to develop a fully wearable prototype for applications in rehabilitation and virtual and augmented reality," says Harshal Sonar, lead author of a paper on the study. "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."
The paper was recently published in the journal Soft Robotics.