Model robotic hand with artificial mechanoreceptors. (Bao Research Group, Stanford University)

Scientists at Stanford have developed a flexible skin-like material that can has the ability to "feel" touch.

The technology uses flexible organic circuits and specialized pressure sensors that are translated into digital signals that vary depending on how much force is applied. The skin, which has been put on a robotic hand, can tell whether it has received a light touch, for instance, or a firm handshake.

Writing in Science this week, researchers said that it was challenging to be able to mimic the sensitivity of human skin which is designed by nature to be able to feel everything from a light breeze to the ouch of a flying ball. After experimenting with numerous materials, they found that carbon nanotubes molded into pyramidal microstructures appeared to respond to a wide range of pressures.

[New prosthetic arm can restore lost sense of touch, DARPA claims]

"Our skin provides us with a flexible waterproof barrier, but it also contains a sensor array that feels the world around us. This array provides feedback and helps us to avoid a hot object or increase the strength of our grip on an object that may be slipping away," researcher Benjamin C.K. Tee, Zhenan Bao and their colleagues wrote.

In an interview, Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, said the first applications of the technology could be very simple involving "skin-like sensors for wearable health monitoring applications."

"Our devices can be mounted on skin like a piece of bandage and measure vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure," she said.

In the future, she said, the technology could be used with prosthetics -- allowing people with artificial limbs to feel sensation -- or even robotics.

Artificial mechanoreceptors mounted on the fingers of a model robotic hand. (Bao Research Group, Stanford University)
Artificial mechanoreceptors mounted on the fingers of a model robotic hand. (Bao Research Group, Stanford University)

The second component of the Stanford research involved how to get a mouse to recognize those digital signals. They found that by applying some specially engineered proteins to a part of the mouse brain called the somatosensory cortex -- which is the main sensory receptive area for touch --  the animal's neurons fired in accordance with the digital stimulation pulse.

"These results indicate that the system may be compatible with other fast-spiking neurons, including peripheral nerves," they said.


Stretchable skin with flexible artificial mechanoreceptors. (Bao Research Group, Stanford University)

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