Artificial skin enables emotive tactile communication

A cross-Channel team of engineers has created an artificial skin for electronic devices, allowing emotions to be communicated via touch.

Known as Skin-On, the biomimetic interface was developed by researchers at Bristol University in partnership with Télécom ParisTech and Sorbonne University. A contoured outer silicone membrane and a hypodermis layer provides the skin-like feel, while an electrode layer of conductive threads underneath translates tactile actions into digital signals.

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As well as detecting position and pressure, the artificial skin can recognise actions such as tickling, caressing, pinching and twisting, and can be programmed to associate those gestures with their appropriate reactions. The research paper will be presented this week at the 2019 User Interface Software and Technology event in New Orleans.

"One of the main uses of smartphones is mediated communication, using text, voice, video, or a combination,” said first author Marc Teyssier, a PhD student at Télécom ParisTech and Sorbonne University.

“We implemented a messaging application where users can express rich tactile emotions on the artificial skin. The intensity of the touch controls the size of the emojis. A strong grip conveys anger while tickling the skin displays a laughing emoji and tapping creates a surprised emoji."

(Credit: Marc Teyssier)

During the research, the team created a phone case, computer touch pad and smart watch to demonstrate how Skin-On can convey expressive messages for digital communication with humans or virtual characters. The hardware behind the technology has also been made open source, and the researchers want developers to replicate and build on the functionality of the artificial skin.

"This is the first time we have the opportunity to add skin to our interactive devices,” said research supervisor Dr Anne Roudaut, Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Bristol.

“The idea is perhaps a bit surprising, but skin is an interface we are highly familiar with so why not use it and its richness with the devices we use every day?"