The rise of wearable technology is inevitably leading towards our clothes becoming the next touch-enabled smart accessories, but why stop there? An international team of researchers has come up with a way of attaching flexible touch controls directly onto the surface of our skin.
Dubbed iSkin, the system does away with one of the fundamental problems of current wearables: finding practical places on the body to position technology that is both functional and ergonomic without being too conspicuous (read: Google Glass). By using skin as the location for a near-invisible control overlay, iSkin’s developers think they’ve discovered the perfect natural touch surface.
“Current electronics are mostly using rigid components which are very uncomfortable to wear on the body and are limiting the locations to, for example, the wrist or on the head to be worn,” co-developer Martin Weigel of Saarland University in Germany told Matthew Stock at Reuters. “But our sensor is a flexible and stretchable sensor, so it can cover many locations. For example, even the backside of the ear or the forearm. So, we have a much larger input space than current electronics allow for.”
The researchers say that iSkin could be used as a remote control mechanism for other sorts of digital devices, such as answering incoming calls on a smartphone, controlling playback on a music player, or even typing and sending whole messages using printed QWERTY-style keyboard interfaces. Depending on what level of control the user requires, the developers say customisable iSkin patches could be created and printed for different sorts of personalised applications.
“The stickers allow us to enlarge the input space accessible to the user as they can be attached practically anywhere on the body,” said Weigel in a press release. “They are also skin-friendly, as they are attached to the skin with a bio-compatible, medical-grade adhesive.”
The current prototype, which won an award for best paper at this year’s SIGCHI conference, features a sensor created by sandwiching a conductive carbon black powder between two sheets of silicone. In addition to giving the skin overlays a distinctive tattoo-like appearance, the sensor is able to distinguish between two different pressures, with resistive (firm) and capacative (light) touches potentially enabling different sorts of user control.
At this stage, the researchers aren’t planning a commercial release for iSkin, but suggest that future versions of this kind of electric skin technology might even be able to source their power directly from the human wearer. Although at that point it all starts sounding a little bit like a skin-sucking alien parasite. Hmmm. Promising research regardless!