New skin patch provides VR experience via touch: Study

Washington, Nov 21 (PTI) Researchers have developed a new thin, wireless system that adds a sense of touch to any virtual reality (VR) experience, an advance that may lead to new dimensions in long-distance relationships and entertainment.

The device developed by researchers from Northwestern University in the US is dubbed an 'epidermal VR' system, and communicates touch to users through a fast, programmable array of miniature vibrating moving parts called actuators embedded into a thin, soft, flexible material.

The VR system is described in the journal Nature, as a 15-centimetre-by-15-centimetre sheet-like prototype that laminates onto the curved surfaces of the skin without bulky batteries and cumbersome wires.

'People have contemplated this overall concept in the past, but without a clear basis for a realistic technology with the right set of characteristics or the proper form of scalability. Past designs involve manual assemblies of actuators, wires, batteries and combined internal and external control hardware,' said Northwestern's John A. Rogers, a co-author of the study.

The researchers applied existing technology in stretchable electronics, and wireless power transfer to put together the components, including miniaturised actuators to design the skin-interfaced wearable VR device.

Rogers said the device presents almost no encumbrances on the user.

'We feel that it's a good starting point that will scale naturally to full-body systems and hundreds or thousands of discrete, programmable actuators,' he added.

The researchers said the device expands the boundaries and capabilities of virtual and augmented reality.

'By comparison to the eyes and the ears, the skin is a relatively underexplored sensory interface that could significantly enhance experiences,' said Yonggang Huang, co-author the study from Northwestern University.

The study noted that the epidermal VR uses an array of 32 individually programmable, millimeter-scale actuators, each of which generates a discrete sense of touch at a corresponding location on the skin.

The researchers said the actuator resonates most strongly at 200 cycles per second where the skin exhibits maximum sensitivity.

'We can adjust the frequency and amplitude of each actuator quickly and on-the-fly through our graphical user interface. We tailored the designs to maximize the sensory perception of the vibratory force delivered to the skin,' Rogers said.

The patch, the researchers said, can be wirelessly connected to a touchscreen interface such as a smartphone or a tablet.

When a user touches the touchscreen, they said, that pattern of touch transmits to the patch, they added.

According to the researchers, friends and family members video chatting from remote locations can reach out and virtually touch each other -- with negligible time delay and with pressures and patterns that can be controlled through the touchscreen interface.

'You could imagine that sensing virtual touch while on a video call with your family may become ubiquitous in the foreseeable future,' Huang said.

The study noted that the actuators are embedded into a soft silicone polymer which adheres to the skin without tape or straps.

The device operates wirelessly without needing bulky batteries, and communicates through near-field communication (NFC) protocols -- the same technology used in smart phones for electronic payments, the researchers said.

'With this wireless power delivery scheme, we completely avoid the need for batteries, with their weight, size, bulk and limited operating lifetimes. The result is a thin, lightweight system that can be worn and used without constraint, indefinitely,' Rogers said. PTI VIS VISVIS