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Dec 26, 2019,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Virtual reality: Skin patch enables physical contact online

Researchers at a US university have created a patch capable of reproducing touch virtually. The VR technology could greatly improve the quality of life of people wearing prosthetic limbs while also revolutionising areas such as video gaming.


VR could be about to bring people together, no matter where they are in the world. Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois have developed a technology that can communicate touch virtually, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The system, which resembles a large silicon patch, enables people with prosthetic arms to feel a handshake, and can also be used to “touch” someone the other side of the world.

It is operated by 32 small actuators remote-controlled via the touchscreen of a smartphone or tablet, for example. When the screen is touched the actuators vibrate simultaneously, producing a sensation on the skin that is similar to being touched. Trace an “X” on the screen with a finger and the person wearing the patch feels the “X” being drawn on them.


Exploring the limits of VR


The patch has been designed to improve the quality of life of people wearing prosthetic limbs and also has a more leisure-based application by creating remote tactile interaction. “We are expanding the boundaries and capabilities of virtual and augmented reality,” said the study’s co-author, Yonggang Huang, in a statement.

Former US soldier and Iraq War veteran Garrett Anderson, who lost his lower right arm in an explosion in 2005, trialled the patch and said he could feel the fingertips of his prosthetic hand.


A gaming revolution?


The vibrations vary in intensity, depending on strength of grip. The new technology allowed the war veteran to gauge the amount of pressure he exerts through his prosthetic limb. “I remember holding my mother’s hand and almost breaking it because I couldn’t adjust my grip,” Anderson told AFP. He is also dreaming of being able to hold his two children by the hand at the same time.

According to the study’s authors, the patch could also enable remote tactile interaction during video calls and multi-player games online. “Imagine holding the hand of a loved one on the other side of the planet, or your Fortnite team-mate patting you on the back,” wrote the researchers, who are now focusing their efforts on making the device thinner and lighter.


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