Electronic Skin Thinner Than Hair Moves Virtual Objects Without Touch

The e-skin is thinner than a strand of hair. Helmholtz/Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf eV

Imagine controlling a light with just the wave of a hand, or dialing a phone from the skin of your arm. The technology required might be just around the corner.

Scientists have developed an electronic wearable "e-skin" that can manipulate virtual objects without touch. The thin, flexible skin contains magnetic sensors that enable the remote control of software. By waving a hand or tapping the e-skin, users can control virtual dials and keyboards.

Streamlining virtual reality technology

Most virtual reality technology is bulky and awkward to use. These virtually imperceptible e-skins, on the other hand, are smooth, pliable and twenty times thinner than a hair. "This technology will enable a cornucopia of applications from navigation, motion tracking in robotics, regenerative medicine, and sports and gaming to interaction in supplemented reality," the researchers explain in a study published in Science Advances.

The technology represents "a new class of interactive devices," the researchers wrote. Similar devices are usually based on optical technology, which requires a direct line of sight between the controller and object being controlled. These e-skins operate by interacting with a magnetic field instead.

"In contrast to any optics-based platforms, our devices do not rely on any special illumination conditions and can operate in darkness," study author Denys Makarov from the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden told Newsweek. "The requirement that says a hand is in the line of sight of the device is not relevant any more."

As you can see in the video above, a sensor worn on a hand interacts with a magnet. Software is programmed to respond to the movement of the sensor in relation to the magnetic field—in this case powering up a virtual light bulb.

Makarov explained: "These devices can be applied to manipulate—touch, rotate, swap—objects in virtual reality or to realize standard 'zoom in/out' functions by naturally moving a hand."

The e-skin could be used in the real world as well as the virtual. Makarov envisions the technology applied in medical treatment since, as he points out, it is "extremely flexible and light" and would not inhibit movement.

Harnessing the Earth's geomagnetic field

At present, the technology requires the presence of a permanent magnet. The researchers hope it will eventually be able to work from the Earth's own geomagnetic field. This could remove the need for a separate magnet.

If this technology sounds familiar, that's because it is. Science fiction is rife with technology which manipulates objects—both real and virtual—without the need for touch. One of the most famous examples are the gloves used to remotely control a futuristic computerized screen in the film, "Minority Report."

Makarov explained that the e-skin could be used to "realize the feature of motion-tracking of the interactive device" used in the 2002 film, making at least that part of the science fiction movie seem a little more real.