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Robotic Skin Lights Up at a Touch, Fear the Age of the Glowing Terminator

I've got you (and a bunch of diodes) under my skin...

terminator arm

Is your skin not glowing as much as you’d like? Do you want your hand to start flashing red if someone gives you too firm a handshake? Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have invented what they call e-skin, a super-thin material that could serve as artificial skin and also happens to light up at the touch thanks to embedded LEDs. That’s definitely what we were asking for in our artificial skin. Ever hear of feature creep, scientists?

The group reported in Nature Materials that the e-skin, which is thinner than a sheet of paper, can provide “instantaneous pressure visualization” — in layman’s terms, that means it can light up in red, green and blue when touched. The colors even increase in brightness depending on how much pressure is applied to the ‘skin’. That’s because between the layers of plastic is a matrix of transistors, pressure sensors, and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

If you’re thinking this is cool but still wondering what immediate purpose this serves in a replacement for human skin, keep in mind that pressure sensors play a vital role in making more responsive robotic limbs for prosthetics. Hooking those pressure sensors up to LEDs could provide a simple way for someone using an artificial limb covered in e-skin to recognize touch stimuli by prompting them with visual cues. That could be a useful application for this technology until we’re ready and willing to hook up artificial body parts to our nervous system, and it seems conceivable to install other responses besides just lighting up — like making an air horn noise, for example.

The UC Berkeley scientists see some other possible applications for the substance besides skin, such as interactive input devices and wallpaper. Wallpaper that lights up when you press it sounds cool, but it seems like everyone would just play with the stuff, quickly turning it into the high-tech equivalent of bubble-wrap.

(Nature Materials via Wired)

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