Scaly, furry, smooth, or rough, all creatures with backbones have skin. And while it’s true that skin “helps keep your insides in,” God designed it to do much more than just that. Today, researchers are developing a device to mimic some aspects of real skin. “Smart skin” could have many uses in the fields of medicine and robotics.
Skin is the largest organ in the human body. It is the body’s first defense against disease and dehydration. Skin insulates against heat and cold, regulates internal temperature, enables feeling, and helps produce vitamin D. Along with the liver, kidneys, and a few other organs, skin can also regrow itself.
Copying such a complex organ is difficult. Scientists at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have already developed a fake skin that stretches and repairs itself when torn. Now they’re working on a high-tech electronic skin called Asynchronous (meaning “not happening at the same time”) Coded Electronic Skin, or ACES.
The e-skin shows promise in feeling temperature, texture, and even pain. So far, ACES devices are less than a quarter of an inch in size. Each tiny patch uses more than 100 small sensors to process data faster than human skin. E-skin can also identify as many as 30 different textures. Algorithms programmed into ACES let it learn new feelings quickly. Squishy ball, hard rock, smooth blanket—ACES allows users to feel the differences.
Researcher Benjamin Tee leads the team at the NUS lab. He’s worked on e-skin for over a decade. His goal is to give both robots and prosthetic devices a better sense of touch. “By recreating an artificial version of the skin for their prosthetic devices,” he says, “[robots can] hold a hand and feel the warmth and feel that it is soft, how hard are they holding the hand.”
“Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake,” Tee continues. He believes giving robots a sense of touch would help them “interact better with humans.”
Tee’s team took inspiration from the human nervous system and according to Tee, the Star Wars movie trilogy. In one scene, the Luke Skywalker character loses a hand. With a robotic hand replacement, Skywalker experiences touch again.
“When you lose your sense of touch, you essentially become numb . . . and prosthetic users face that problem,” says Tee.
ACES technology is still developing. The NUS team hopes to be able to link ACES with other e-skins in their lab—including self-repairing and waterproof ones. Skin research is already creating more lifelike prosthetic limbs and restoring the sense of touch to disabled persons.