Electronic Skin

A newly developed technology could revolutionize the future of virtual reality (VR). The innovative electronic skin, known as an e-skin, is a soft, bendable, and wearable tech that allows the user to manipulate objects that exist only in the virtual world. Published in the journal Science Advances, a new study shows how this e-skin can interact with magnets.

The e-skin is a thin film that can be worn on the hand and manipulated to interact with a magnet nearby. Depending on the angle of the wearers' hand, the voltage will vary.

Specially designed software that can control what happens at each incremental angle allows the motion of the wearer's hand to dictate specific commands. Examples for use of this tech, as described by the Verge, could include turning off virtual light switches and typing on virtual keyboards — both with tangible results.

The e-skin, attached to the palm of someone's hand, enables them to move in a certain way near a magnet to control a light. Image Credit: D. Makarov

Study author Gilbert Santiago Cañón Bermúdez, a researcher at Helmholtz-Zentrum-Dresden-Rossendorf Institute for Ion Beam Physics and Materials Research in Germany, told the Verge that the e-skin is not designed as a replacement for current VR technologies. It is more likely that it will be blended with other VR-compatible tech to create a more organic, interactive experience.

Changing VR

Existing VR devices use cameras to detect and track motion. Though it may improve over time, this method's resolution is not generally high enough to register subtle movements in fingers and other more nuanced gestures. With the introduction of this electronic skin, not only could such movements be detected, they could be used to manipulate and interact with a virtual environment.

The obvious implications are in standard VR technologies, which range from games to learning experiences. But, beyond VR, e-skin technology could drastically change current capabilities in augmented reality (AR). Using AR tech, you might be able to see objects in the world around you that might not physically be there. Using an e-skin, you might one day manipulate and interact with such virtual objects.

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In addition to these fun applications, e-skin might equip someone with a prosthetic arm to more easily manipulate virtually enabled technologies. The e-skin could also be incorporated into emerging advancements in prosthetic devices and even in soft robotics.

In hazardous situations or high-risk jobs, it's plausible that this tech could be used with virtual buttons, controls, or doors that would enable operation without physical interaction. For those dealing with explosives or in other especially dangerous lines of work, this may be able to decrease the potential for injury.

Currently, the researchers developing e-skin are using magnetic fields the size of refrigerator magnets. They are working towards smaller fields so that the tech can be controlled using much finer gestures.

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