Researchers develop an artificial ‘skin’ for interfaces, smart devices

Admit it – we’ve all imagined a future where our handsets, devices, laptops, and even smart displays are sleek glass sandwiches and bezels are a thing of the past – and we’d all control our favourite functions from gesture swipes and twists through a holographic interface.

While that’s an enticing thought, a team of researchers has had what’s probably the opposite idea.

Developed by researchers at the University of Bristol, Sorbonne University in Paris and Telecomm ParisTech, a new artificial ‘skin’ could soon adorn our smart devices where instead of issuing voice commands or making air gestures we could soon caress, tickle, and pinch flesh to issue commands.

As Marc Teyssien, a PhD student at Telecomm ParisTech explains, “when we interact with others, we use skin as interfaces. however the objects of mediated communication – such as the smartphone – still has a cold interface that doesn’t allow natural interaction and input. In this project, I wanted to make available the perfect human interface that is the skin for existing devices.”

The artificial skin that the partnership has developed is made in three layers – essentially a silicone sandwich, the interface has dragonskin silicone on top, a lattice of stretchable copper wire in the middle, and another layer of silicone underneath.

The interface is designed to emulate interaction with human skin – longer and more forceful presses would increase the depth and complexity of commands, somewhat like the idea of using a long press on a modern smartphone or Haptic Touch on Apple’s newer iPhones.

Teyssien adds that the skin’s colour hues are intentionally reminiscent of human skin. “To improve the visual appearance of the interface, the excess of silicone can be trimmed before being folded around the side of the hypodermis layer and glued with silicone glue… paint or makeup can be added to shade the artificial skin with flesh like tonal variation, thus increasing anthropomorphism.”

Though the skin won’t be headed for store shelves any time soon, it is destined for further research projects that will see the addition of embedded hair and temperature-sensing features.

What are your thoughts? Do let us know in the comments below.