05 December 2019

A woman sits at a computer, video chatting with her young son while she gently pats an interface on a separate screen. In response, a wireless patch on the child’s back vibrates in a pattern that matches his mother’s fingers, allowing him to “feel” her physical touch.

The new patch is a type of haptic device, a technology that remotely conveys tactile signals. A common example is video game controllers that vibrate when the player’s avatar takes a hit. Some researchers think more advanced, wearable versions of such interfaces will become a vital part of making virtual and augmented reality experiences feel like they are happening. John A. Rogers, a physical chemist and material scientist at Northwestern University, together with his team helped develop the new haptic patch.

Scientists, technology companies and do-it-yourself-ers have experimented with wearable haptic devices, often vests or gloves equipped with vibrating motors. But many of these require heavy battery packs connected by a mess of wires. Because of their weight, most have to be attached loosely to the body instead of adhering securely to the skin. So, Rogers and his colleagues developed a vibrating disk, only a couple millimeters thick, that can run with very little energy. These actuators (a term for devices that give a system physical motion) need so little energy that they can be powered by near-field communication—a wireless method of transferring small amounts of power, typically used for applications like unlocking a door with an ID card.

The resulting product looks like a lightweight, soft patch of fabric-like material that can flex and twist like a wet suit, maintaining direct contact with the wearer’s skin as their body moves. It consists of thin layers of electronics sandwiched between protective silicone sheets. One layer contains the near-field communication technology that powers the device. This can activate another layer: an array of actuators, each of which can be activated individually and tuned to different vibration frequencies to convey a stronger or weaker sensation. This stack of electronics, slightly thinner than a mouse pad, culminates in a tacky surface that sticks to the skin. The device is described in a Nature paper published Wednesday.

So far, the researchers have tested prototype patches of different shapes and sizes to fit on various parts of the body—a circular one for the back of the hand and an X-shaped one for the upper back, for example. In one demonstration a family video-chatted while using the patch to touch remotely. In another, a lower-arm amputee gripped a beer koozie with his prosthetic hand. Each fingertip was equipped with sensors that communicated with a patch on his upper arm, providing tactile information about the object his robotic arm was holding. Finally, a test subject wore multiple haptic patches while playing a combat video game, so virtual strikes on his avatar’s limbs could be transmitted to the corresponding parts of his real body.

Although Rogers and his colleagues have established a start-up business to potentially commercialize their device, they say this is not the focus of their continuing research. In the near future, Rogers says, they hope to make the patch lighter, thinner and more flexible. They are also experimenting with its sensitivity: because the actuators can be tuned to vibrate at frequencies to which the skin is more or less perceptive, they could theoretically convey a stronger or weaker touch (although that would require a more refined system for inputting the signal, one that could distinguish a gentle stroke from a rougher push). Rogers also thinks future versions of the haptic patch could produce more types of sensations. In addition to a perpendicular touch on the skin, it might be able to convey a twisting motion or a temperature change.


The original article was published in Scientific American


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