A new interface built by scientists in Bristol and Paris has brought touch technology to new heights with its artificial skin-like membrane designed for augmenting interactive devices such as wearables, phones, or computers.
The Skin-On interface, designed by scientists at the University of Bristol in collaboration with Sorbonne University and Telecomm ParisTech, looks like human skin in appearance but also in sensing resolution.
The scientists adopted a bio-driven method for creating a multi-layer, silicone membrane that imitates the layers in human skin. This is composed of an electrode layer of conductive threads, a surface textured layer, and a hypodermis layer. The interface is not only more natural than an inflexible casing but is also capable of detecting plenty of gestures made by the end-users.
Consequently, the artificial skin permits devices to “feel” the user's grasp—its location and pressure, and can sense interactions such as caressing, tickling, even pinching and twisting.
This is the first time we have the opportunity to add skin to our interactive devices. The idea is perhaps a bit surprising, but skin is an interface we are highly familiar with so why not use it and its richness with the devices we use every day?
Dr Anne Roudaut, Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction, University of Bristol
Dr Anne Roudaut supervised the Skin-On interface project.
"Artificial skin has been widely studied in the field of Robotics but with a focus on safety, sensing or cosmetic aims. This is the first research we are aware of that looks at exploiting realistic artificial skin as a new input method for augmenting devices," said Marc Teyssier, lead author.
In the research, scientists built a computer touchpad, phone case, and smartwatch to show how touch gestures on the Skin-On interface can transport expressive messages for computer-assisted communication with virtual characters or humans.
One of the main use of smartphones is mediated communication, using text, voice, video, or a combination. We implemented a messaging application where users can express rich tactile emotions on the artificial skin. The intensity of the touch controls the size of the emojis. A strong grip conveys anger while tickling the skin displays a laughing emoji and tapping creates a surprised emoji
Marc Teyssier, Study Lead Author, University of Bristol
"This work explores the intersection between man and machine. We have seen many works trying to augment human with parts of machines, here we look at the other way around and try to make the devices we use every day more like us, i.e. human-like," said Dr Roudaut.
It will not be long before such tactile devices become the standard. The paper offers all the steps required to reproduce this research, and the researchers are inviting developers who are keen to work with the Skin-On interfaces.
Scientists say the subsequent step will be to make the skin even more lifelike. They have already begun looking at temperature features and embedding hair which would leave everyone in awe.
The Skin-On interface, developed by researchers at the University of Bristol in partnership with Telecomm ParisTech and Sorbonne University, mimics human skin in appearance but also in sensing resolution. (Credit: Marc Teyssier)