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Scientists made electronic skin that mimics the sense of touch

Published May 19th, 2023 10:27PM EDT
electronic skin shown on fingers
Image: Jiancheng Lai and Weichen Wang of Bao Research Group at Stanford University

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Scientists with the Bao Research Group at Stanford University have created a new electronic skin that can mimic the sense of touch. The “e-skin,” as some refer to it, is detailed in a new study featured in the journal Science. The skin is intriguing because it is not only soft and stretchable, but it can also generate nerve-like impulses that communicate directly with the brain.

Previous attempts to make skin like this have required very rigid electronics in order to convert the sense of touch and other nerve-like signals. However, these researchers have managed to not only convert senses like pressure or temperature into electrical signals, but they’ve also managed to do it with a very thin, stretchable material that can be applied almost anywhere.

The resulting electronic skin has already known immense success during the researcher’s study. Zhenan Bao, a senior author of the study, says mimicking the sense of touch wasn’t the difficult part. “The hurdle was not so much finding mechanisms to mimic the remarkable sensory abilities of human touch,” Bao explained in a statement. The trouble, instead, lies in bringing all those components together using nothing but skin-like materials.

e-skin close upImage source: Jiancheng Lai and Weichen Wang of Bao Research Group at Stanford University)

“Much of that challenge came down to advancing the skin-like electronic materials so that they can be incorporated into integrated circuits with sufficient complexity to generate nerve-like pulse trains and low enough operating voltage to be used safely on the human body,” Weichen Wang, first author of the paper said about the electronic skin.

The skin relies on layers of technology like a soft integrated circuit that mimics the sensory receptors found in human skin. This circuitry relies on a very low voltage to run efficiently, requiring only five volts. The researchers say that this kind of electronic skin will be vital to create new-age prosthetic limbs that not only help restore movement functions but also help provide sensory feedback.

It’s definitely a far cry from earlier tech like Facebook’s touch glove, which let you experience touch in virtual reality, and hopefully, future research and development brings some widespread availability of this kind of technology for those who need it. Similar tech developed in Singapore could also help push this next generation of prosthetics.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.