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Touch Senses Added to Synthetic Skin, Robot Arm

Skin-On Interface

Skin-On Interface added to laptop touchpad and mobile devices (Marc Teyssier)

21 Oct. 2019. Computer scientists in the U.K. and France created techniques for adding a refined sense of touch to highly sensitive artificial skin and an inexpensive robotic arm. Researchers from the lab of computer science professor Anne Roudaut at University of Bristol reported these developments in two papers at the ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium, now underway in New Orleans.

Roudaut is part of the Bristol Interaction Group that studies interactions between humans and computers. The lab’s research includes materials and soft robotics to move the study of robotics further into systems that can change shape and respond better to environmental cues. The Bristol team, with colleagues from Telecomm ParisTech and Sorbonne University in Paris, are seeking to increase the sensitivity of artificial skin used in robotic and mobile devices. Adding more tactile sensitivity makes it possible for these devices to discriminate between different levels of pressure and interpret the purpose of the interaction.

The artificial skin, called Skin-On Interface, is made of different layers, much like human skin. Skin-On Interface has a lower-level of electrode circuits sewn together with conductive threads, covered by a textured outer surface, encased in soft silicone. The team designed the artificial skin for more sensitive interactions with robots, but also as a new form of interaction with mobile phones and wearables. Tests show Skin-On Interface can detect rubbing, twisting, pinching, and even tickling.

Marc Teyssier of Telecomm ParisTech, lead author of the conference paper, says in a Bristol statement, “Artificial skin has been widely studied in the field of robotics but with a focus on safety, sensing, or cosmetic aims. This is the first research we are aware of that looks at exploiting realistic artificial skin as a new input method for augmenting devices.” This video by Teyssier, hosted on EurekAlert, demonstrates Skin-On Interface and shows how it’s made.

Roudaut and colleagues also designed a lightweight and inexpensive robotic arm for everyday use. The device, called Mantis, is not only easy to assemble, but can sense touch through haptic or force feedback, similar to touch screens on phones and computer screens. But on Mantis, the haptic feedback is interactive, so it can return changes in surface pressure enabling users to feel the shape of an object.

“Imagine a user playing a game in virtual reality with Mantis attached to their fingers,” says Roudaut in a university statement. “They could then touch and feel virtual objects, thus immersing themselves both visually and physically in an alternative dimension.” Roudat adds, “Humans already have a great sense of touch. Mantis expands on this innate ability by enabling people to touch and feel 3-D objects, adding more depth to the VR experience.”

Bristol doctoral candidate and Mantis developer Gareth Barnaby started Senmag Robotics, a spin-off company planning to take the device to market. “We will be giving out the plans to allow anyone to build a Mantis,” says Barnaby. “Because we are keen to make force feedback devices more widespread and not confined to research labs, we are also looking to produce some easy to build kits as well as pre-built versions that we will make available on the web site.”

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