Scientists engineered touch-sensitive material long ago. You can see it everywhere, from the buttons on your microwave to the touchscreen on your iPhone. However, a UC Berkeley research team led by Ali Javey has now created a paper-thin, pressure-sensitive material that is incredibly flexible.
Flexible enough to cover a finger!
This prototype electronic skin, or e-skin, is about the size of your fingernail. It looks like a mesh as its pixels are grouped symmetrically and very close to each other. In fact, there are exactly 256 pixels on that tiny 16 pixel by 16 pixel screen.
It is somewhat like a smartphone screen, but it is also pressure-sensitive. The iPhone is touch sensitive, and lights up more as your finger is on it longer. This screen, however, grows brighter as more pressure is applied. Also, it can roll up like a scroll several times without getting damaged.
In 2010, Javey's science team created a model design. It was bigger and bulkier than the current 2013 model. After a few changes and a few years, the newer, slimmer design was released at a press conference in July. The fact that it is so flexible makes it a versatile material that can be used in so many different ways.
Making this e-skin was no easy task. First, a thin layer of polymer was hardened onto a wafer-thin piece of silicon (which computer chips are made of). Then the electronic components were carefully printed on using modern techniques, forming a matrix of teeny tiny wires (nanowires). When the team peeled off the polymer, what was left was a pliable, silicon e-skin that mimicked the bendability of the polymer.
The engineers believe future applications of this technology could include dashboards that perform specific duties at the tap of a finger, and many more appliances yet to be developed. A prosthetic limb could have this e-skin on it, allowing the wearer to FEEL objects.
Also, this e-skin could be coated into a glove, so the over-enthusiastic handshaker could stop the squeeze at a firm, but not squashed, exchange. Co-lead author Chuan Wang explains a medical use: "I could also imagine an e-skin bandage applied to an arm as a health monitor that continuously checks blood pressure and pulse rates."
An even more intriguing application of this material is a touchy-feely robot. We could create robots that rescue victims from burning or collapsing buildings. If we coated this skin on movable robot limbs, the robot could feel the victim, and using its pressure-sensitive system, determine how gently it should hold its rescuee.
Technology has evolved so much over the past 10 years. Now we have a revolutionary e-skin that will no doubt inspire more inventions, and speed up technology's development.