Skin-worn haptics gives touch back to prosthetics

November 21, 2019 //By Julien Happich
Researchers from Northwestern University have developed a new form of laminated haptics that complies with the curved surfaces of the skin, distributing discrete points of actuation easily controlled remotely and wirelessly.

Device layers. Credit: Northwestern University

The prototype described as an “epidermal VR” solution in a Nature paper titled "Skin-integrated wireless haptic interfaces for virtual and augmented reality" consists of a 150x150mm flexible laminate embedding an array of 32 miniaturized actuators into soft, flexible silicone. Each of the actuators, measuring about 18mm in diameter and 2.5mm thick, can be individually controlled and powered wirelessly using the same communication protocol used to activate and read out NFC tags. Their frequency and amplitude can be adjusted on-the-fly through a specially designed graphical user interface, tailoring the actuation to maximize the sensory perception of the vibratory force delivered to the skin, the authors explain.

Hence, while a remote user would draw a pattern on the touchscreen interface of a smartphone or tablet, that touch pattern would transmit to the array of actuators, reproducing the same sensory pattern, almost simultaneously and in real-time as a vibratory output to the wearer’s skin. The researchers anticipate that their epidermal VR haptic solution could be made slimmer and lighter with more densely packed actuators while also incorporating micro-heaters for thermal inputs.

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