Electronic fingertips – first step on the way to true VR glove (credit: John Rogers/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Researchers created an artificial second skin which includes flexible sensors and circuits that can be put on fingertips and artificially create touch and texture using electrical stimulation opening the door to super thin virtual reality gloves and a host of other applications.
For years Dr. John A. Rogers and his team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been working on a unique new brand of flexible circuits. Their latest creation is a nanometer-sized pieces of silicon combined with strips of gold that conduct electricity. The team put this new thin layer of flexible circuit on top of polymer which holds it together and embedded it inside a tube of silicone that had been made to look just like a human finger. The result – a super thin flexible thimble with built in electronics.
For testing purposes Dr. Rogers and his team used the new flexible electronic thimble and pressed it against a flat object. When the finger was pressed to a surface the pressure created electric currents which the user felt as mild tingling. This can be seen as a first step towards a thin flexible virtual reality glove which can both feel the users movements and create virtual sensations. The same technology can potentially be adapted to create virtual sensations on any other part of the body and even full body virtual reality suit might be possible in the future.
Virtual reality gloves could be a way to train professionals such as doctors to create delicate tasks like brain surgery virtually without risking living patients. According to Dr. Rogers another application of the technology could be to develop special "electronic skin" around entire organs in the body which can allow doctors to monitor all sorts of functions such as internal temperature and blood flow remotely. Another potential application might be replacement for natural skin for as burn victims or amputees who lost their ability to sense.
Dr. Rogers team together with other teams from around the world have been working on other advanced aspects of nano-flexiable electronics including technology that can be integrated into wounds and help heal them (using precise insertion of micro medication) and eventually dissipate inside the human body after they have done their work.
More information on the electronic skin can be found on the following article (PDF).
Iddo has a B.A. in Philosophy and Cognitive Science and an M.A. in Philosophy of Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently writing his Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between the scientific community and industry. Iddo was awarded the 2006 Bar Hillel philosophy of science prize for his work on the relationship between science and technology. He is a member of the board of the lifeboat foundation and was the editor of several high-profile science and technology websites since 1999.