Recent advances in technology continue to improve the functionality of prostheses, as well as make them more affordable and available than ever before. Now researchers in South Korea are working to add the sense of feeling to prostheses, with a new “smart skin.”
Professor Dae-Hyeong Kim, and researchers at the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Seoul National University, have embedded an array of soft stretchable ribbons of sensors into a silicon rubber “skin” that can be used to cover a prosthesis. The sensors in the skin can then “transmit a wealth of tactile and thermal signals from external environment to the brain,” according to an article in the journal, Nature Communications.
The skin has built-in sensors capable of measuring the pressure, temperature, and humidity, of anything that touches the skin, and is far more flexible than current sensors. This increase in flexibility allows the sensor to withstand greater stresses, as well as amount and type of data that can be measured. The information is then relayed via a secondary array of platinum sensors attached to the user, allowing the user’s brain to interpret the stimulation.
The sensors ability to stretch more than previous sensors, also allows for tasks where twisting occurs, such as shaking a person’s hand. In fact, the researches matched the flexibility of the skin to match the function of the location that the skin would be covering.
The combination of attributes in the skin allows for users to be able to complete complex tasks where force, temperature, and humidity factor into the task – tasks such as catching a ball, typing on a keyboard, and picking up a hot or cold drinks.
Soft and warm to the touch, the skin is equipped with electroresistive micro-heaters that mimic a person’s body heat. Not only can the skin sense body heat, but it can respond by warming itself to body temperature, creating a more human-like interaction with others.
Currently, the skin has been demonstrated on small animals and will not be on the market for quite some time; however, when paired with other emerging technology for prostheses, such as controlling prostheses through thought, the future of prostheses looks very promising.
“Globally, we’ve already seen the success of thought-operated prosthetic arms,” Professor Dae-Hyeong Kim told Korean news outlet Yonhap News. “In a few years, I expect to see prosthetic devices made of prosthetic skin that detects external stimuli and responds like real skin, operated by brain signals.”
Images courtesy Kim et al. / Nature communications.
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