Editorial Feature

Next-Level Touch Technology Creates Artificial Ticklish Skin


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Researchers based in both Bristol, UK, and Paris, France have innovated an interface utilizing revolutionary touch technology. Published in UIST 19 Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface and Technology, where the teams work will be presented, the paper describes the establishment of an artificial skin-like membrane that can detect interactions such as tickling, caressing, even twisting and pinching. Its creators see its value in the development of enhanced phones, wearables, such as smartwatches and computers.

The First Innovation to Augment Devices by Exploding Human Skin

The motivation behind the new technology was to create a new way for humans to interact with their devices that is more natural. Developed at the University of Bristol, alongside Telecomm, ParisTech and Sorbonne University, the technology mimics human skin not only in appearance but also in sensing resolution.

Previously, research has been conducted in the sector of robotics to develop various kinds of artificial skin. However, the focus on these technological advancements has mostly been on safety, sensing or cosmetic aims. The work will take a contrasting perspective to most work into the marriage of man and machine that has come before it. While preceding endeavors have focused on incorporating technology to enhance the human functions, such as with robotic prosthetics, this project has turned that on its head to look at how we can augment devices by making them more like us.

The English/French team is seemingly the first to have ever investigated a method of exploiting artificial skin as a method for augmenting devices. While the researchers recognized that at first, the concept of using artificial skin for devices is unusual, they point out that we are used to our senseless, rigid casings, because thats all that has been available. The creators of new technology believe that new malleable technologies have a lot of advantages. They see that the advent of skin like interfaces for devices will provide a more natural way for people to communicate with them.

The projects lead author, Marc Teyssier, focuses on the fact that touch has evolved to be a natural part of human communication. However, now that much communication is performed through devices, the modality has been lost. The team wanted to regain this through their artificial skin.

Developing Touch Technology

To create the artificial skin, researchers adopted a bio-driven approach, constructing multiple layers of silicone membrane in a way that mimics human skin. The sensing of the artificial skin is done by the top layers, which represent the human dermis, which have an electrode layer in the middle that act as sensors. The skin's texture was created by combining two different types of silicon to give it a soft, human-like touch, in addition to being flexible allowing it to carry out human-like, expressive gestures.

During the study, a phone case, smartwatch, and computer touchpad were created to exhibit how expressive messages could be converted by touch gestures on artificial skin. Researchers implemented a messaging application where users were able to communicate tactile emotions on artificial skin. Different gestures were designed to produce different emojis that were in line with the emotion the emoji represented, such as tickling to represent laughter or a strong grip for anger.

Touch to Communicate Emotion

The outcome of the work was that a more natural interface was created than the currently available rigid casings. The researchers were able to successfully equip the technology with the ability to respond to a plethora of gestures, allowing the users to grasp to communicate meaning to the artificial skin. Things like pressure and location were effectively analyzed by the skin to detect tickling, caressing, even twisting and pinching.

Future Developments

Its predicted that because the tactile device offers a more natural way of interacting with technology, it is likely to quickly become commonplace. The work by the team that is presented in the research paper includes all the necessary steps for replicating this research, encouraging other teams to take their work further to get this technology off the ground.

The next area to focus on will be in improving the appearance of the skin to make it more realistic, the team is even considering embedding hair and adding temperature features.

Overall, the familiarity of skin offers end-users a more natural interface, and it is reasonable to predict that this more natural way will take over from our current interfaces.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Teyssier, M., Bailly, G., Pelachaud, C., Lecolinet, E., Conn, A. and Roudaut, A. (2019). Skin-On Interfaces. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology - UIST ’19. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3347943

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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