The next article in the series is looking at wearable tech, in the form of skin. With advances in Augmented Reality coming along further and further each day, we are now looking at electronic skin (e-Skin) that can manipulate devices around you, from the physical lightbulb to a virtual architecture plan. Be like Tony Stark with this ultra-thin, 1.7-μm-thick polyimide foil, wearable technology…

This augmented reality powered computer chip sits nicely in the palm of the hand, but you won’t even notice it. Thinner than a human hair, at less than 3 micrometres thick, it’s hard to believe it doesn’t just snap on contact. For reference, a human hair is roughly 50 micrometres thick.


How does e-Skin work?

The main goal of the e-Skin is to give humans their own ability to interact with magnetic fields (magnetoception). The receptors form part of the whole magnetosensitive skins, allowing for body position tracking, magnetic cognition and touchless object manipulation.Click To Tweet

Birds, insects, bacteria and even vertebrates like sharks use the Earth’s magnetic fields for orientation and navigation. It helps them perceive direction and location, and also the altitude in which it currently sits. Currently, there is nothing to suggest we, as humans, have this magnetic sixth sense, although we do have a protein in the eye called a cryptochrome which could serve this function.

The main goal of the e-Skin is to give humans their own ability to interact with magnetic fields (magnetoception). It achieves this by using artificial receptors that interact with said magnetic field, like a bird would. These receptors form part of the whole magnetosensitive skins, allowing for body position tracking, magnetic cognition and touchless object manipulation. This is seen in the case study of a light bulb later on.

The technology uses a static magnet in which an electronic appliance is programmed into. When the user touches the magnet, it is replicating touching the physical object.


The Tech

Typical virtual and augmented reality technology won’t work in the case of this e-skin. The mix of gyroscopes, camera arrays, accelerometres, magnetometres and real-time image processing requires considerable energy supplies. This, unfortunately, requires space, which would defeat the whole purpose of easy-to-manage wearable technology.

Instead, the skin uses giant magnetoresistive sensor foils and magnetic field sensors, providing high sensitivity, flexibility and mechanical endurance. This results in proximity detection, touchless control and navigation. Which basically means, when moving the hand in the y-axis, the magnet would detect the sensor’s relative proximity. This allows for replication of the touch function of a hand by detecting how far away the hand is from the object.

Arranged into two Wheatstone bridges resides eight high-performance spin valve sensors. In order to detect hand movement in the x-axis, the skin uses these sensors to determine which axis the hand is moving in. Much like an Xbox controller, moving the right analogue stick right-left or up-down results in an x or y-axis movement, respectively. As the proximity sensor explained previously handles the ‘touch’ function, there doesn’t need to be anything as fancy added at this stage.

You now have a system that can activate electronics as the hand touches it, and can be rotated by turning the hand in a motion similar to turning a dial.


Application and the Light Bulb

The benefit of using a magnetic field is that the user no longer requires a direct line of sight between the object and the skin sensors. So if there were controls inside a radioactive chamber, they can be controlled from an external, safe environment without the need to send a human being into hazardous places.

As mentioned earlier, there was a case-study of engineers and scientists emulating a dimmer switch with this magnotechnology, then using it to turn a virtual light bulb down.

The first step was to create the dial which simply consisted of a ring-like plastic structure with a magnet inside. The next step was to code the light bulb and assign intensity parametres to the dial. The dial was coded as angles between 0 and 180 degrees, corresponding to typical hand movements involved in turning a knob. The bulb was coded to be off at 0 degrees and at full brightness at 180 degrees; the intervals being divided up equally between the maximum and minimum integers.

Finally, the user put his e-Skin covered hand on the dial (fulfilling the proximity element) and turned his hand left and right to dim and brighten the bulb, respectively.

After the success of this trial, the researchers then went on to replicate the physical dial in a virtual dial with great success.


The Possibilities

There is currently a great lack of technologies and mediums for interfacing the physical and virtual worlds. This approach takes some fundamentals of virtual and augmented reality and opens up potential far beyond our current capabilities.

So, what other possibilities are there? Could the e-Skin be used to land an aeroplane in a situation where a human couldn’t? Could it be as simple as sitting at your desk, noticing your clock is wrong and using your new powers to correct it?


Next in the series, Wednesday 7th March 2018…

Tech of the Week #3: Harley Davidson – The Electric Dream

Tesla is widely known for their electric vehicles and pioneering the electric lorry as well; we have electric bicycles, SUVs, trains and everything in-between, but I’ve always felt one vehicle, in particular, has been missing. A personal favourite of mine: the motorbike. Well, to all you bikers out there, Harley Davidson is providing us with the answer…


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