iSkin Turns the Body Into a Touchpad

A skin-worn sensor that turns the human body into a touch sensitive surface for controlling mobile devices has been developed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Saarland University, Reuters reports. iSkin is made from biocompatible silicone rubber with pressure-sensitive sensors that are stuck to the skin of the users, allowing them to use their own body to control mobile devices.

iSkin, considered by the develoeprs as an ideal platform for on-body interaction for mobile computing, could permit better interaction with small electronic devices. The current prototypes are wired to a computer, although the technology could evolve to use integrated wireless interfaces and harvest power from the user’s body.

“Current electronics are mostly using rigid components which are very uncomfortable to wear on the body and are limiting the locations to, for example, the wrist or on the head to be worn,” said co-developer Martin Weigel. “But our sensor is a flexible and stretchable sensor, so it can cover many locations. For example, even the backside of the ear or the forearm. So, we have a much larger input space than current electronics allow for.”

New Types of On-Body Devices

iSkinWeigel is a PhD student in the Embodied Interaction group at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics. The group wants to reinvent computer interfaces in order to seamlessly integrate digital media with the physical world, enabling more effective, expressive and engaging interactions.

“(The) technology is initially coming from robotics where it’s used to give robots kind of a feeling similar to the human body, to human skin,” said Weigel. “However, we are the first to look into how we can use it on the body to control mobile devices; so as a kind of second-skin which nicely conforms to your body. The sensor is made out of bio-compatible silicone and carbon-doped silicone. So there are carbon particles inside the silicone which make it conductive so we can use it for electronics.”

The silicone used to fabricate the sensor patches makes them flexible and stretchable. “This makes them easier to use in an everyday environment,” explained Embodied Interaction group leader Jürgen Steimle. “The music player can simply be rolled up and put in a pocket.”

The researchers won the Best Paper Award at the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15) with a paper titled “iSkin: Flexible, Stretchable and Visually Customizable On-Body Touch Sensors for Mobile Computing.”

iSkin supports single or multiple touch areas of custom shape and arrangement, as well as more complex widgets, such as sliders and click wheels. Recognizing the social importance of skin, the researchers developed visual design patterns to give iSkin sensors a visually aesthetic appearance. The developers say:

Taken together, these contributions enable new types of on-body devices.

Images from Embodied Interaction group at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.