Artificial human-like skin could change how you use your smartphone in the future

What do you think about when you pick up a smartphone? How the curvature of the glass design feels in your hands? How heavy the device may or may not be?

In the future, you could be able to tickle and caress your device, all with the aim to add “richness” to the gadgets we use every day.

Researchers at the University of Bristol, in partnership with Telecomm ParisTech and Sorbonne University, have created a new Skin-On interface which mimics human skin in appearance and sensing. 

Associate professor in human-computer interaction at Bristol University, Dr Anne Roudaut, who was the research supervisor for the project, said: “This work explores the intersection between man and machine. We have seen many works trying to augment human with parts of machines, here we look at the other way around and try to make the devices we use every day more like us, i.e. human-like.”

The multi-layer, silicone membrane is designed to mimic the layers present in human skin. There’s a textured layer, an electrode layer of conductive threads and a hypodermis layer (similar to the hypodermis layer in human skin which functions as insulation for the body). 

The idea is that this skin-type interface is more natural than the glass, rigid casings you usually find on smartphones and wearables. By employing the artificial skin on a device it means the phone could “feel” the grasp of the person using it. It would also be able to detect interactions such as tickling and caressing. When you throw your phone because you’re in a mood? It would definitely be able to feel that. 

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“This is the first time we have the opportunity to add skin to our interactive devices. The idea is perhaps a bit surprising, but skin is an interface we are highly familiar with so why not use it and its richness with the devices we use every day?” said Dr Roudaut.

A new interface developed by researchers in Bristol and Paris takes touch technology to the next level by providing an artificial skin-like membrane for augmenting interactive devices such as phones, wearables or computers (Marc Teyssier)

The lead author, Marc Teyssier, added: “Artificial skin has been widely studied in the field of robotics but with a focus on safety, sensing or cosmetic aims. This is the first research we are aware of that looks at exploiting realistic artificial skin as a new input method for augmenting devices.” 

The research investigated applying this new skin interface to a phone case, computer touchpad and a smartwatch. They looked at how touch gestures with the interface could convey messages for communication with other humans or virtual characters. For instance, you could tickle the skin to send a laughter emoji in response to a message, or tapping the skin could indicate surprise. 

In particular, the team behind Skin-On are hoping that developers get in touch, and the paper includes details on the steps for them to replicate the research. The next step for the Dr Roudaut and the team is to make Skin-On more realistic by embedding hair and temperature. Listening to a true-crime podcast? Your phone could have goosebumps, just like you.

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