Imagine walking up to your closet to put on a second layer of skin before you sit for a video call with your loved one on the other side of the globe and then feel their touch miles away. Or picture going skin shopping with your parents before you go off to college in another country.
The “skin” here also known as Epidermal Virtual Reality is a thin, soft layer made from silicone that lets the wearer feel the touch of someone far away in virtual reality. As of now, the size of the skin is 15 centimeters by 15 centimeters which makes it equivalent to a small patch but with further development, these could become full-body systems helping us replicate the sense of touch over thousands of miles.
This small flexible sheet of skin made from silicone polymers is embedded with an array of 32 actuators (just as our skin is made up of skin cells), each of which is measured in millimeters. These actuators can be individually programmed and resonate at 200 cycles per second producing a feeling of touch when placed anywhere on the skin. The patch sticks to the skin without any tapes or straps and comfortably attaches itself to curved surfaces on the skin.
Unlike some previous bulky complicated versions involving batteries, wires, straps, manual inputs, external and internal hardware this patch can be charged using the same technology used by phones to make electronic payments. It has no batteries, is wireless and each of the actuators can be individually programmed on the go using a graphical user interface. All this makes the system so light in weight that it could even be used over prolonged durations.
What’s more…one doesn’t even need to be a science guru to be able to operate it. All you need is a touchscreen interface that would most commonly be your smartphone or tablet. The patch is wirelessly connected to the device and whatever impression you make on the screen is replicated onto the skin where the patch has been attached. Since the patch can be wirelessly connected to a device, you could connect to your partner’s patch miles away and they would be able to feel your touch even at that distance.
Until now VR has been implemented only in the areas of vision and hearing. The skin which is the largest organ of the body has been left out of virtual reality. But this system could just be the beginning. The most common use of it would be to establish a physical connection with someone while talking on a video call. Gaming could go a notch above what it is today just by including a sense of touch in the gaming experience. The technology could also find so many uses in the medical field.
Researchers are exploiting the actuators to transform the basic sense of touch to other sensations like heating, cooling, stretching or even pain. Think about teasingly pinching your sibling from far away, or feeling different sensations while playing a game online or feeling the warmth of hot cocoa on a cold winter morning when you can’t make one. What now is a patch could be made bigger to make clothes, gaming suits or maybe total bodysuits.
People with prosthetic body parts who have lost the feeling of touch could regain their senses and be able to understand the pressure they need to apply to a surface or how it feels to hold a piece of ice or even just feel the part be alive for the first time. Army veteran Garrett Anderson, who lost his arm and has a prosthetic arm says this invention might help him sense how it feels to hold his children again.
If the researchers have been able to find a way to implement the virtual sense of touch through a small patch, the day isn’t far that one would have two skins or two suits and skin on while going to work.