Electronic skin could help people with disabilities

Wednesday, 17 July, 2019

Electronic skin could help people with disabilities

A researcher from the University of Sydney is developing wearable technology that could be used to control devices, receive information and even register sensation.

Virtual buttons, also called soft keys, are on smartphones, ATMs and computer monitors, doing the work of buttons though they are just images themselves. They are both handy and efficient — unless you’re vision impaired, because you won’t be able to see them.

Seeking to solve this issue, Anusha Withana from the University of Sydney School of Computer Science is looking for solutions in what is one of the fastest growing areas of scientific research: electronic skin. He said, “My research is about creating blended interfaces, meaning technology that can be worn without being noticed.”

Working with colleagues, Withana is developing a superthin, hyper-flexible sticky tape that can have electronic circuits printed onto it. Once applied, people could use it to control devices, receive information and register sensations through mobile phone-like vibrations. This could have benefits in robotics, education and game-playing — and for people with disabilities.

An added advantage of tactile information is that it doesn’t distract people in the same way that visual or auditory information might. Withana noted, “Some vision-impaired people prefer not to have information come to them through sound, because that’s their connection with the world. If information can come to them in a tactile way, that’s better.”

To that end, Withana teamed up with German researchers to develop what is effectively a printable electronic fake tattoo, called the Tacttoo, that can be personalised to specific needs. The Tacttoo is screen-printed with a circuit made from polymer-based conductive inks which can stretch and move with the skin, while all connections between the skin and the electronics are printed in skin-safe silver ink.

The ‘feel through interface’, as in the sticky tape element, is only half the thickness of a human hair. It is believed to be the thinnest wearable tactile device to date — so thin that it doesn’t interfere with the normal sense of touch. Tacttoos are also inexpensive: mass produced, the material content would cost less than $0.01 each.

“We want people to be able to wear it today and remove it tomorrow — and we want people to be able to create it themselves,” Withana said. “A broader user goal is to allow people with vision impairment to explore graphical information and more fully comprehend objects in museums and parks.”

Withana’s research is thus setting the stage for a future in which someone with a robotic hand will be able to sense heat from a cup, or gauge how much pressure to apply to an object; a stroke patient might have a personalised interface with sensors that measure their progress and give them feedback; and a surgeon doing surgery remotely could get the same sense of pressure or dexterity that they would have if they were there in person. It is also anticipated that these wearable technologies will be connected to smart watches to control music or take calls, meaning an entire smart device — including energy-harvesting batteries — may be printable and worn on the skin.

Image caption: Anusha Withana is developing a hyper-flexible sticky tape, printed with electronic circuits.

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