Stretchy Artificial Skin Lets Prosthetic Hand Sense Heat, Humidity, and Pressure

Dec 12, 2014

Kim et al./Nature Communications

By Sarah Fecht

Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by an amputee’s thoughts or muscle movements already exist. But what if they could also sense the environment and then send that information back to the amputee’s nervous system?

 In order to create prosthetics that can function more like real body parts, scientists are designing artificial skins that pick up on tactile information. So far, these skins have gotten very good at sensing pressure—in fact, a skin designed by Stanford engineers is 1,000 times more sensitive than human skin. Another is self-healing.

But a new skin built by researchers in South Korea may be the smartest artificial skin yet. It’s stretchy, like real skin, and it can sense pressure, temperature, and humidity. It even has a built-in heater so it feels like living tissue. The researchers tested the artificial skin on a prosthetic hand, and they hope that some day, it will interface with a patient’s nerves so amputees can feel everything the fake skin feels.

“The prosthetic hand and laminated electronic skin could encounter many complex operations such as hand shaking, keyboard tapping, ball grasping, holding a cup of hot or cold drink, touching dry or wet surfaces and human to human contact,” they write in the paper, which was published today in Nature Communications.

The bulk of the new skin is composed of a flexible, transparent silicone material called polydimethylsiloxane — or PDMS. Embedded within it are silicon nanoribbons that generate electricity when they’re squished or stretched, providing a source of tactile feedback. They can also sense whether an object is hot or cold.

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6 comments on “Stretchy Artificial Skin Lets Prosthetic Hand Sense Heat, Humidity, and Pressure

  • The degree of precision and range of our natural senses is constrained by evolution in a long-gone environment.

    It will be only a short time before all these artificial sensors are greatly superior to our in-born ones.

    Then do we start an “upgrade” process?

    Already artificial legs are considered quasi-cheating in sprinting.

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  • Future Sense

    What is a sense? It is a biosensor, some nerves to transmit digital asymmetric data signals, and an area of the brain dedicated to analysing the signals, then, the most mysterious of all — generating a subjective experience. In future, we could add extra senses. The first might be like simple fuel guages that monitored our blood for levels of electrolytes, vitamins, sugars, mineral and nutrients. We already have such simple natural senses e.g. satiety, hunger, thirst, full bladder and sleepiness. Then we might add ones to let us sense other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum such as ultraviolet, infrared and gamma rays. Some of our senses may be used for communication and remote information gathering. Doing nothing could be much more entertaining in future than it is now with all these extra data sources.

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  • How Many Senses?

    Humans have about 10 million sensory neurons. Each one is tasked with monitoring some specific aspect of the universe. So you might say we have 10 million senses. Tradition says we have only 5. Scientists say we have at least 25, including things such as proprioception (awareness of where all the limbs are), hunger, thirst and balance.

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  • I also envision a (near) future where artificial limbs and sensory organs become so reliable and (relatively) inexpensive, with vastly superior capabilities to our naturally evolved components, that people will have their perfectly functional limbs/organs removed and replaced with bionic ones.

    Imagine eyes that can be adjusted by the user to see well into the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum, ears that give better hearing than dogs have, legs that allow a person to sprint at 30mph for hours without tiring or arms that can punch through brick walls and break down doors as if they were made of balsa wood.

    What about the military applications? What if every soldier had integrated into their arms, weaponry like blades, electroshock devices/tazers or, eventually as the technology miniaturizes, laser emitters? Imagine the combat effectiveness of a squad of soldiers with communication devices implanted directly into their brains, enabling them to instantly receive updates/orders from their commanders and silently coordinate amongst themselves without being within sight or earshot of each other.

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  • Roedy Dec 13, 2014 at 3:00 am

    It will be only a short time before all these artificial sensors are greatly superior to our in-born ones.

    Then do we start an “upgrade” process?

    If this interface was also linked to a transmitter-receiver, users could (in addition to, or instead of) using their prosthetic limbs, remotely use robot limbs on robots in hostile environments, such as in defective nuclear reactors, or in the vacuum of space.

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  • You assuming that the only thing we would regard as irreplaceable would be the brain, ourselves. Start breaking that down into components capable of controlling superior limbs and we would have to find the ‘soul’ to preserve only. 😉

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