Saturday, August 11, 2012

Scientists simulate touch with artificial skin

We use our nervous system to record input from the outside world, enabling us to see, feel, hear, smell and touch. Being able to register that our body is touching something is governed by sensory neurons that are present in the skin. They respond to tactile input from the outside world, after which an electrical pulse is sent to the brain, making us aware of what is happening. Scientists have been able to simulate touch by electrically stimulating the skin, something that can be used for various purposes. Virtual touch could be used for surgery and games, for example.

Artificial skin
In order to create virtual touch, the researchers developed an electrical circuit with silicon parts and small gold wires. An elastic polymer was used to wrap the components into a flexible package, that was made to look like a hollow, wearable finger tip. This is just the first step: the scientists hope to create a whole hand, or glove, that users can wear.

By hooking up the 'electrotactile stimulators' to a computer, it is possible to simulate touch in various conditions. For example, surgeons can be trained with virtual operations, in which virtual touch helps to simulate the feeling of dealing with a patient. Additionally, it can be used for games, adding more reality by making it appear that the player is actually touching something in the game.

It is not the first time scientists emulate touch by electrical stimulation, but the flexible package greatly increases the number of practical applications. In addition to creating gloves with virtual touch, the scientists claim their technology can be used to create wearable devices for other parts of the body as well.

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