New Artificial Skin Expands Possibilities for Virtual Reality Control

Colin McMahon
Oct 8, 2019

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne have created a new silicone-based material that, when worn over the human body, simulates a sort of “second skin,” according to a recent article published in the Soft Robotics science journal. According to the preliminary findings this material, when used as a feedback device, marks a vast improvement over haptic feedback technology – which is a leading form of virtual reality (VR) control.

Defined in the article as a “Closed Loop Haptic Feedback Control Using a Self-Sensing Soft Pneumatic Actuator Skin,” the device is designed to be worn directly over human skin. As a material, it’s thin – only 500 nanometers thick. By comparison, even lighter clothing (typically 152,400 nanometers thick) is over 300 times thicker. This utra-thin material still manages to be durable and flexible, allowing it not only to rest on the skin, but form to its shape.

A connected series of pneumatic actuators run the length of the material, replicating the sense of touch through controlled vibrations. In simpler terms, anytime the material wishes to create feedback, it simply inflates the membranes to match the pressure triggered, thus recreating touch on a level that was impossible before. The amount of inflation and pressure can be highly varied, allowing for minor or extreme sensations.

Speaking in the Soft Robotics article, lead author of the study Harshal Sonar stated: “This is the first time we have developed an entirely soft artificial skin where both sensors and actuators are integrated. This gives us closed-loop control, which means we can accurately and reliably modulate the vibratory stimulation felt by the user. This is ideal for wearable applications, such as for testing a patient’s proprioception in medical applications.”

Examining the Potential Impact on VR Applications

Sonar and his team are quick to stress the benefits of the membrane in the medical field, but this new “skin” has multiple areas of application. In VR, it is easy to see the product eventually creating a new level of control in feedback in gaming, for instance.

Arguably more importantly, however, is the product testing space. VR is already used to help with prototyping and design in the workplace. Engineers and other personnel can create, view, and interact with anything from an action figure to a jet engine without using resources to physically create the object. That said, the interaction is limited by current VR controllers. As advanced as many haptic feedback-optimized VR control inputs are, they are not on the level of actual touch.

By utilizing this new skin material in product development, testers could not only closely examine the parts and components before construction, they could truly get a feel for how the material would behave and operate.

This is also true for augmented reality (AR) applications, giving testers and trainees more feedback from their simulated exercises. This heightened level of realism may further improve memory retention, and streamlin the training process even further.

The new “skin” is still in early development. While researchers are confident of the material they have created, it is still months (at least) from the commercial stage. That said, its creation represents a new step forward in advanced feedback. If and when this technology proves commercially viable, expect VR to feel more real than it ever has before.

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