New robot ‘skin’ points to flexible touchscreen future

E-skin. Credit: Ali Javey and Chuan Wang
E-skin could change portable electronic devices.
Credit: Ali Javey and Chuan Wang

Attention, naysayers who predict that robots will never be like humans: The robots just make a huge leap in our direction. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have invented robot skin – and it reacts when touched.

“With the interactive e-skin, we have demonstrated an elegant system on plastic that can be wrapped around different objects to enable a new form of human-machine interfacing,” explained Ali Javey, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at Berkeley.

The e-skin is not really skin, of course: It’s flexible plastic. But its sensors react just like human skin. Lights flash when the skin is touched: softly in response to light touching, brightly in response to more pressure. The plastic sheets, which can be wrapped around robot limbs, will help the android creatures react to human beings.

But the purpose of the skin is not to make robots more human. Instead, the researchers envisage it being used in wallpaper that functions like today’s touchscreen devices.

“Unlike the stiff touchscreens on iPhones, computer monitors and ATMs, the e-skin is flexible and can be easily laminated on any surface,” says the study’s lead co-author, Chuan Wang, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan State University.

“I could also imagine an e-skin bandage applied to an arm as a health monitor that continuously checks blood pressure and pulse rates,” said study co-lead author Chuan Wang.

The results of the study, which was funded by the Pentagon’s pioneering research arm, DARPA, were published in the scientific journal Nature Materials.


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