Artificial skin could give us ticklish phones. But why?

Marc Teyssier
Originally Published: 

If you've ever held your smartphone in one hand and thought "This could use a layer of skin," you're surprisingly not alone. A new piece of tech in development, called the Skin-On interface, is a new artificial skin membrane that's meant to mimic human skin in terms of its feel and appearance. It also apparently has the ability to sense touch as well. That means gestures like tickles, pinching, and even grasping. If it's hard to wrap your brain around, that's totally understandable – but it could be the next big thing when it comes to smartphones or computers.

Researchers at the University of Bristol, Telecom ParisTech, and Sorbonne University have been hard at work bringing this strange new invention to fruition. The membrane itself is made of multiple layers, including silicone, that's based on the same layers of human skin. This includes a surface layer with textures, an electrode layer with "conductive threads" and then the hypodermis. These membranes are meant to form an artificial skin that has several implications, such as allowing devices to feel if users are squeezing it or poking it, detect where on the device these things are happening, and more. It's an eerie creation with odd applications: your phone could effectively be tickled, or caressed, if the tech works as it should.

"Artificial skin has been widely studied in the field of Robotics but with a focus on safety, sensing or cosmetic aims. This is the first research we are aware of that looks at exploiting realistic artificial skin as a new input method for augmenting devices," explained the lead author of the study, Marc Teyssier.

Right now, the "skin" resembles something more like putty than anyone's arm or shoulder. Researchers have already tested Skin-On with a phone case, a smart watch, and a touch pad for a computer in an effort to demonstrate how social touch gestures could translate to messages in the virtual world for communications. Using these types of inputs, users could feasibly "stroke" a loved one's cheek or press their lips to a lover's face. According to Teyssier, the intensity of a touch could even be used to translate intent into emoji.

"One of the main use of smartphones is mediated communication, using text, voice, video, or a combination. We implemented a messaging application where users can express rich tactile emotions on the artificial skin. The intensity of the touch controls the size of the emojis. A strong grip conveys anger while tickling the skin displays a laughing emoji and tapping creates a surprised emoji," said Teyssier.

It's an intriguing study to say the least. On one hand, having artificial "skin" on any of your smart devices may sound a little off-putting or strange. On the other, this type of tactile input could be a game-changer for disabled users or those who prefer to skip out on using a computer mouse or keyboard to commence. It could even change the way we play video games and interact with fictional characters. More than phones, however, the Skin-On tech could potentially be used for prosthetic limbs and other devices.

The researchers involved in the study are already working on the next phase of bringing the skin to life: adding hair and features that could feasibly allow it to get goosebumps.

Virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri already make us feel like we're interacting with real beings sometimes. Are we ready for our smart devices to literally feel as if they're human as well?