The army deployed Susan thousands of miles from home. Her three-year-old son misses her. On their once-a-week video call, he cries when he hears her voice. She rubs his back and calms him. How did she do that? Biotechnology. A new skin. Will you wear it?
The First Attempts
For years, scientists, technology experts, and DIYers have tried to create wearable haptic devices. Haptic means relating to or based on the sense of touch.
Early devices required huge batteries for power sources. That made them too heavy to wear or limited by wires to and from the batteries. Many were so bulky so they hung loose and so failed to convey the touch.
You are probably familiar with one device that uses haptics. Your cell phone. It vibrates or doesn’t vibrate. But that vibration tells you by touch that you have a call or a message.
The new skin is a flexible artificial skin developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) . Their very thin haptic skin, made of silicone and electrodes, will stretch and shape to any limb or body part. It transmits vibrations or pressure to the user. In other words, it creates a sense of touch.
EPFL aren’t the only ones developing haptic skin. John A. Rogers, a physical chemist and material scientist at Northwestern University and his colleagues developed a tiny vibrating disk. Its need for energy is so small its power comes from a wireless source. A little thinner than a mouse pad, this device has thin layers of electronics between layers of silicone. The inner layer of silicone has a tacky surface that sticks to your skin.
Potential uses are seemingly endless. One commercial use is to make Virtual Reality (VR) games more immersive. Imagine being able to feel the blow your avatar receives.
Other uses are close to situations like the imaginary Susan in the opening paragraphs of this post. Someday astronauts on the moon or Mars may reach out and touch a loved one on Earth.
Finally, there are many possible medical applications. It may make the lives of patients who’ve lost their sense. Amputees may be able to feel their artificial limbs. And people who’ve lost their sense of proprioception could live safer lives. (Proprioception is the awareness of the position of your body in space. It involves balance, coordination, and movement.)
Researchers at EPFL and Northern University both want to develop a full body suit of haptic skin.
What Could Go Wrong?
A lot could go right. Patients would enjoy devices that would restore their sense of touch. But a lot could go wrong.
What if someone who wore a full body haptic skin suit committed a crime? No DNA evidence. No fingerprints. Maybe even someone else’s face.
We know that babies and children need maternal (and paternal) touch to grow into emotionally healthy individuals. What if that touch were only simulated touch?
What other potential problems do you see?
In the Future
Once again, we need lots more research. But haptic skin will happen. In time. Someday you may be offered a new skin—will you wear it?