Technology can be awkward. Our pockets are weighed down with ever-larger smartphones that are a pain to pull out when we’re in a rush. And attempts to make our devices more easily accessible with smart watches have so far fallen flat. But what if a part of your body could become your computer, with a screen on your arm and maybe even a direct link to your brain?
Artificial electronic skin (e-skin) could one day make this a possibility. Researchers are developing flexible, bendable and even stretchable electronic circuits that can be applied directly to the skin. As well as turning your skin into a touchscreen, this could also help replace feeling if you’ve suffered burns or problems with your nervous system.
The simplest version of this technology is essentially an electronic tattoo. In 2004, researchers in the US and Japan unveiled a pressure sensor circuit made from pre-stretched thinned silicon strips that could be applied to the forearm. But inorganic materials such as silicon are rigid and the skin is flexible and stretchy. So researchers are now looking to electronic circuits made from organic materials (usually special plastics or forms of carbon such as graphene that conduct electricity) as the basis of e-skin.
Typical e-skin consists of a matrix of different electronic components – flexible transistors, organic LEDs, sensors and organic photovoltaic (solar) cells – connected to each other by stretchable or flexibleconductive wires. These devices are often built up from very thin layers of material that are sprayed or evaporated onto a flexible base, producing a large (up to tens of cm2) electronic circuit in a skin-like form.
Much of the effort to create this technology in the last few years has been driven by robotics and a desire to give machines human-like sensing capabilities. We now have e-skin devices that can detect approaching objects and measure temperature and applied pressure. These can help robots work more safely by being more aware of their surroundings (and any humans that might get in the way). But if integrated with wearable technology, they could do the same for humans, detecting, for example, harmful movements during sport.
The technology has also led to the creation of bendable screens, while at least one company is hoping to turn the skin into a touchscreen using sensors and a pico-projector rather than a display.
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