Researchers have created a wireless, wearable “skin” for prosthetics that allows the wearer to feel touch through vibration. This could help amputees with daily tasks and aid in rehabilitation.
Until recently, prosthetic skin that could feel was pure science fiction. The new prosthetics, developed by researchers from City University of Hong Kong and Northwestern University, aren’t the first to have a sense of touch - but they’re the first that are actually usable in everyday life.
Previous models have relied on cumbersome batteries and wires to power electric motors to move vibratory actuators. Since nobody wants to plug their arm into a motor every time they want to touch something, these devices haven’t taken off.
The new tech uses wireless technologies to move small haptic actuators that need very little power to create millimetre-sized vibrations. These are embedded in a thin layer of elastomer, coated in silicone, and incorporated in a flexible ‘skin’ that the wearer can apply to their own skin.
This futuristic skin can contain a variety of chips and small antennae, so the wearable can be powered and controlled wirelessly with just a small amount of radio frequency power, which the actuators pick up through the antennae. This gives the user full freedom of movement.
Dr. Yu Xinge, a researcher involved in the study said, “The haptic actuators can harvest radio frequency power through the large flexible antenna within a certain distance, so the user wearing the device can move freely without the trouble of wires. Thus, we solved the difficult problem of transmission by low-power wireless function and significantly increased the distance of the operation for our system. This system not only saves power but also allows users to move more freely without the trouble of wires.”
Because the wearable skin is so flexible, the wearer can make a wide range of twisting and bending motions with it on. And through the subtle vibrations from the skin, they can actually feel the shape and texture of an object they’re trying to pick up.
The researchers are currently running a trial to test how well the wearable allows prosthetic users to sense their environment, which could help them carry out tasks more easily and successfully. They also hope to use the same technology to develop virtual scenes for clinical applications.