Cyborgs Closer To Reality: Scientists Develop Electronic Skin Sensors For Controlling Mobile Devices

Wearables seem to be the “next big thing” when it comes to consumer electronics devices. While interest in Google Glass seemed to fizzle out rather quickly, fitness trackers and smartwatches -- like the Apple Watch and the Android Wear-sportin’ Motorola Moto 360 -- are gaining in popularity with consumers.

But while those devices put a new tech-infused spin on an old idea — the wristwatch — researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, Saarland University and Carnegie Mellon University are developing a different type of wearable that actually sticks to your skin. Dubbed iSkin, the silicone rubber-based product is loaded with pressure-sensitive sensors, can made into limitless sizes/shapes and safely adheres to your body. For example, iSkin can be stuck to your forearm, wrapped around your finger, or even attached to your ear. I’m sure some rather adventurous types could think of more “publicly hidden” areas to stick iSkin, but that’s for another, adult-rated article… 


“iSkin supports single or multiple touch areas of custom shape and arrangement, as well as more complex widgets, such as sliders and click wheels,” write the researchers. “Recognizing the social importance of skin, we show visual design patterns to customize functional touch sensors and allow for a visually aesthetic appearance. Taken together, these contributions enable new types of on-body devices.”

What makes iSkin interesting is that it can be used for “fast and direct control of mobile devices using touch input even when the hands are busy.” The researchers see iSkin being used to control smartphone and smartwatch functions like a stopwatch during sports activities, adjusting music playback and volume, and answering phone calls. The team has even developed a prototype rollup 30-key QWERTY keyboard than can wrap around your forearm and attach to a smartwatch (input methods for smartwatches are rather limited, so this is a rather novel approach).


The sensors are constructed using several layers of silicon. Non-conductive parts of the iSkin are built using transparent polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), while conductors are made with carbon dope PDMS. These materials allow iSkin to be very flexible and stretchable (tests showed that the sensors could be stretched by up to 30 percent with no ill effects). And in case you were wondering, iSkin can be removed from your skin without causing pain or ripping out your overgrown arm hair.

Interestingly, the technology and materials used to develop iSkin were first developed to give robots a “touch” sensation similar to that of humans. But now, that same methodology is allowing humans to become even more interfaced with our devices.

While current generation iSkin prototypes are hard-wired to computers, the research team says that future generations will employ wireless technology to communicate with mobile devices and generate power via the movement of the user’s body.

Tags:  wearables, iskin