“Smart skin” makes virtual touch a reality

New era: Current VR touch controllers are clunky and not very portable. © Go Touch VR

Should touch become digital? A new, thin, wireless skin could allow us to reach through a screen and touch what is on the other side. Are we living in a dream or a nightmare?

You are watching a music video from one of the world’s biggest stars. During the chorus, they reach out towards the screen. You do too and, for a moment, you feel your fingertips brush theirs.

You are travelling on the other side of the world. Your parents video call you to say hello. When you pick up, you feel their warm arms wrap around you.

“Human touch is probably the deepest, most significant emotional connection that you can establish with a loved one or friends,” says Josh Rogers, an American professor at Northwestern University who studies haptics.

In a paper published on Wednesday in the science journal Nature, Rogers and his colleagues revealed they have built a battery-free, wireless smart skin that could break down the last barrier of on-screen communication: touch. Powered by tiny, vibrating cogs, the smart skin is paper-thin, soft material that contours the human body.

Its potential uses range from the fairly mundane (allowing businesspeople to shake hands in online meetings) to the life-transforming (restoring full bodily sensation for amputees). Rogers and his team insist it will transform the way we consume digital entertainment, like video games and films.

“You can deploy multiple devices at different areas of interest across the body, and you can control all of them wirelessly and simultaneously,” Rogers added. The skin uses existing e-dermis technology to mimic nerve endings. It can even sense temperature.

In another demonstration of its medical uses, the skin is currently being tested on stroke victims at danger of choking on their food. The vibrations trigger swallowing so as not to disrupt breathing.

Last year, The Guardian declared that we are living through “a crisis of touch”. Most of us rarely exchange physical contact with someone outside of our immediate family or an intimate relationship.

But for millions of years, skin-to-skin contact has provided our most fundamental, universal communication. It is the first sense to develop in the womb. Even an embryo just 1.5cm in length can, to some extent, feel through its tiny network of nerve endings.

Is it time for touch to go digital?

Magic touch?

Absolutely, say some. The internet has allowed us to break down the vast distances that separate us from one another, but the barrier of touch has remained. Until now. It is the ultimate step for liberating human communication from physical bonds. And that’s without considering the technology’s myriad medical uses, which could improve quality of life for millions.

Not so fast, respond others. There is something grounded, physical and organic about human touch that computers will never be able to replicate. When you touch or hold a loved one, you are rooting your bodies and selves in a real, joined experience. We must not corrupt human touch by disconnecting it from reality. It is just another step towards absolute isolation from one another.

You Decide

  1. Would you use a smart skin?
  2. Are we living through a “crisis of touch”?

Activities

  1. In one minute, write as many words as you can that you associate with the word “touch”.
  2. Write a one-page story set in a future where touch has been almost completely digitised.

Some People Say...

“Touch has a memory.”

John Keats (1795-1821), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
New smart skins that can artificially stimulate the sense of touch are currently being tested on stroke patients. The technology was unveiled by its creators at Northwestern University in the USA in the journal Nature last week. The skin is made of a thin, soft material dotted with tiny vibrating wheels that can mimic nerve endings.
What do we not know?
It‘s tricky for scientists to pin down exactly how our bodies experience touch. Far from being a single sense, there are different nerve endings that recognise itch, others vibration, pain, pressure and texture. One exists solely to recognise a gentle stroking touch.

Word Watch

Haptics
The science of touch.
Contours
An outline that wraps around the shape of an object.
Mundane
Lacking excitement; boring and everyday.
Amputees
People who have had a body part removed due to injury or illness.
E-dermis
The e-dermis was first used to bring a sense of touch and pain to users of prosthetic hands in June 2018.
1.5cm in length
As cited in The Guardian link in Become An Expert.
Myriad
Extremely great number of people or things.
Battery-free; wireless
Unlike existing technology, which usually has bulky sensors and extensive wires, the new skin is small and portable.

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