Northwestern develops 'electronic skin' that can restore sense of touch in amputees

Northwestern University researchers created a wireless virtual reality patch that can communicate a sense of touch and potentially provide sensory feedback when integrated with a prosthetic, according to a Nov. 20 news release.

The research, co-led by Northwestern biomedical and engineering professors John Rogers and Yonggang Huang, PhD, was published in Nature on Nov. 20.

The epidermal VR system comprises a fast, programmable array of miniature vibrating actuators that are embedded into a thin, soft and flexible material. The actuators inside the patch generate vibrations, which stimulate the sense of touch at corresponding locations on the skin.

The research team tested the device on a U.S. Army veteran who lost his right arm during his deployment. The device was integrated with the veteran's prosthetic arm, so when he wore the patch on his upper arm, he could feel sensations from his prosthetic fingertips transmitted to his arm.

"[Device] users develop an ability to sense touch at the fingertips of their prosthetics through the sensory inputs on the upper arm," said John Rogers. A biomedical engineering professor at Northwestern and co-author of the study, according to the report. "Over time, your brain can convert the sensation on your arm to a surrogate sense of feeling in your fingertips. It adds a sensory channel to reproduce the sense of touch."

The patch also has potential to be used for telemedicine encounters, Mr. Rogers said. The patch can wirelessly connect to a touchscreen interface, such as a smartphone or tablet. When a user touches the touchscreen, the pattern of touch transmits directly to the patch. This can support video chat encounters when individuals are communicating from different locations. Using the device, one person can reach out and virtually touch the other person with pressures and patterns that can be controlled on the touchscreen interface.

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