Touch is the first sense you develop. We are born aware of the pressure, hardness, texture and temperature of the world that touches us and technology companies seem to be in the process of making us relive that experience by selling consumers “convenience” as it pushes for the adoption of transhumanism.
Taking into account the complexity of the sensations that we can register and process with the skin that surrounds us, that our mobile phone tells us everything vibrating is as subtle as nailing a fork.
“Touch is an invaluable tool for exploring the world and perceiving information about it. And it is being greatly underused, compared to the ubiquity of visual and auditory inputs,” says Alice Haynes, a researcher at the soft robotics group at the Bristol University
The technological revolution of the skin
From a technological point of view, the concept of the skin cannot be more versatile in the research channels it opens and the applications they promise.
Haynes works on an interface called supercutaneous empathic electrical stimulator (SCWEES). This system could be used to increase the realism and quality of immersive experiences in virtual reality environments, to mediate in remote social interactions, to serve as an additional information channel for people with visual or hearing disabilities and to translate tactile sensations to prosthetic users.
“My personal interest is to create devices that contribute to mental health and well-being, relieving stress and anxiety. I am translating the therapeutic qualities of petting a pet, hugging a loved one, or meditating on comforting devices,” he explains.
On the other hand, Atif Syed runs Wootzano a Scottish company that also manufactures skins, but for robots. Its flagship product, Wootzkin, emerged by chance, while working on the development of a flexible patch suitable for administering drugs.
“I ended up creating a unique formula with incredible properties,” he recalls. The resulting membrane now incorporates pressure, temperature and humidity sensors, which allow something as easy for you and as difficult for a robot to handle vegetables without mashing them ahead of time.
“Wootzkin allows the robot to know exactly how soft the product is, so that it can be grasped with precision, without damaging it,” adds Syed. This machine skin also allows sensing prosthetic limbs, operating in nuclear power plants and remote wind production centers, and assisting in surgeries.
Marc Teyssier wants to put skin to your mobile, your smartwatch, and the trackpad of your laptop. Its prototype is called Skin-On Interfaces. “The first thing they always ask me is ‘what the hell have you done'”, he admits laughing.
His field of study is affective communication and the way to put a sense of touch to technology. “If you are face to face with someone, you usually use physical contact. With phones and mediated communication in general, we totally lose this sense.”
The starting point for this is the design of technologies that we can touch as we touch humans and vice-versa. “In science fiction, the vision of transhumanism always appears. At some point, humans and machines merge together. But the path always goes from the human, to which a little machine is put. What if our devices had human characteristics? How would this change the way we interact with them? “, asks Teyssier.
For now, its casing allows you to turn up the volume and send happy and angry emoticons with tickles and squeezes, respectively.
Some technologies close to the approaches of Teyssier, Syed and Haines are already on the market. This is the case of the sound t-shirt, from Cute Circuit, which uses vibration, but takes it one step further.
These garments incorporate 16 activators that receive the music and reinterpret it, so that violins, for example, sit on the arms and drums on the back. With this system they manage to create an immersive experience that allows deaf people to feel the music on their skin.
Hey goes one step further. Bracelets are created to caress remotely. Its creators describe it as the first wearable that mimics human contact, so you can feel your loved ones wherever they are. If you wear one and I wear the other, just run a finger across the surface of mine so that you feel a little squeeze on your wrist.
For the rest, there is still a way to go. Haynes still forecasts a good season of lifelong vibes. “The technology sector is open to these technologies, but right now vibration is the simplest, most effective, small and easy method of embedding to generate haptic sensations.” Until the other methods reach a similar level, the integration will be slow”.
The founder of Wootzano is more optimistic. In his opinion, these artificial skins will end up being like lentils. “What the skin offers is something that other current technologies have failed to solve,” he says.
And for Marc Teyssier, the main obstacle is in our heads. “The problem is not technical, it is of social acceptance. This project addresses something that we are not comfortable with as humans: the incarnation.
What is alive and what is not? We tend to think of phones as inanimate objects, but if we add organic characteristics, we find it difficult to be comfortable with them,” he says.
If everything progresses, we will turn around the trend that we have followed in the last couple of decades. “In the modern world, we have many social interactions at a distance.
“Creating social interactions of mediated physical contact that are positive and emotional could help bridge this gap,” explains Haynes.
“Even something so simple that someone gives us a hot or cold cup affects our emotional response to that person, so we should not underestimate the importance of touch in our emotional well-being.”