• 09.15.10

Could Robots Get the Sensitive Skin They So Clearly Long For?

New materials research using tiny rubber pyramids brings us a step closer to “electronic skin.”

It’s been a busy week for those of us who eagerly follow news about electronic skin. On Monday we brought you word that UC Berkeley researchers backed by DARPA had developed a thin material with nanowires and rubber, leading to fantasies of sensitive prosthetic or robotic skin. Now we learn that Stanford researchers, not to be outdone, have also developed electronic skin, capable, as lead researcher Zhenan Bao told the Stanford Report, of detecting pressures well below that of “a 20-milligram bluebottle fly carcass we experimented with.” (The Report elected to put this more poetically in its teaser, saying the skin could delicately sense “an alighting fly.”)


The Stanford researchers took a different approach from their colleagues across the bay. Rather than use germanium and silicon nanowires, they made a thin rubber film shaped into a grid of millions of tiny pyramids. “The most innovative feature of the skin is the use of micro-texturing of rubber thin films,” researcher Benjamin Tee tells Fast Company, “allowing the same type of fast, repeatable response as thicker rubber even though it is a hundred times thinner.”

The announcement is an occasion, of course, for wild fantasizing and extrapolating. Aside from the usual suspects—restored sensitivity to lost limbs, designing robots that feel, Asimov 101 stuff—the Stanford researchers have come up with novel ideas for how such technology might be expanded. Tee envisions, for instance, a highly sophisticated trackpad for your laptop. “New types of pressure-informed gestures can be developed, such as bringing up frequently used programs when the user pushes harder in a certain manner.” The team’s Nature Materials paper, published online on September 12, demonstrates the possibility of multi-touch pressure-sensitive interfaces. Imagine a trackpad so smart and sensitive that by doing a delicate dance across it with your fingertips, you could signal different things to your computer. “This potentially eliminates the need for secondary mechanically-driven on-off buttons as your mouse click, for example,” says Tee.

But of course, the usual caveat applies: we’re not there yet. “The basic technology has been developed,” says Tee. “Now, the important next step is to bring it to the consumer’s hands.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.