Date: 22nd November 2019
Healthcare is one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality (VR) and it is transforming medical education, with VR simulations of surgeries and other skilled-based techniques. In mental healthcare it is being used as a method of treatment for phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychiatric conditions. We have reported its use in diagnostics, with NeuroDotVR, a portable, device capable of monitoring brain activities for the diagnosis of visual and neurological disorders.
The drive to refine and expand VR technology is now starting to move VR adoption into mainstream healthcare. However, to date the interface of VR has in the main been focused on the eyes and ears.
Now researchers led by John Roger and Yonggang Huang from Northwestern University, have developed an epidermal VR system. A new thin, wireless system that adds a sense of touch to any VR experience.
The 15 x 15cm device incorporates a distributed array of 32 individually programmable, millimeter-scale actuators. Each actuator generates a discrete sense of touch at the location the device is placed on the skin. The actuator resonates up to 200 cycles per second, a peak at which the skin exhibits maximum sensitivity. The system can be tailored by adjusting individual actuators in both frequency and amplitude.
The patch can wirelessly connect to a tablet or smartphone, the touchscreen interface transmits a pattern drawn on the screen to the patch which in turn produces a sensory pattern on the skin.
The authors have been quick to acknowledge that the current device is a good starting point but their ambitions for the device are high.
The epidermal VR has recently been tested by a U.S. Army veteran who lost his arm during his deployment. The system was integrated with his prosthetic arm. By placing the patch on his upper arm, the sensations from his prosthetic fingertip were transmitted to his arm and the resulting vibration reflected the firmness of his grip.
It is hoped over time, the brain will convert the sensation of the arm to a surrogate sense of feeling in the fingertips.
The authors are already working to incorporate different types of actuators, including those that can produce heating and stretching sensations. Trying to create a more comprehensive sensory experience.
Whilst the current device is already slim, further optimisations to make it even lighter and thinner are already underway. Currently the device is embedded into a soft and slightly tacky silicone polymer that adheres to the skin. It is thought that one day the device could be woven into VR clothes. Perhaps even one day we will see full-body systems containing hundreds or thousands of actuators.
The potential for this device in healthcare and especially in the advancement of the prosthetic field is exciting. It is also likely this will be adopted more widely, certainly it would enrich the VR gaming experience, and may enhance social interactions.
For more information please read the press release from Northwestern University
Yu, X., Z. Xie, Y. Yu, J. Lee, A. Vazquez-Guardado, H. Luan, J. Ruban, X. Ning, A. Akhtar, D. Li, B. Ji, Y. Liu, R. Sun, J. Cao, Q. Huo, Y. Zhong, C. Lee, S. Kim, P. Gutruf, C. Zhang, Y. Xue, Q. Guo, A. Chempakasseril, P. Tian, W. Lu, J. Jeong, Y. Yu, J. Cornman, C. Tan, B. Kim, K. Lee, X. Feng, Y. Huang and J. A. Rogers (2019). “Skin-integrated wireless haptic interfaces for virtual and augmented reality.” Nature 575(7783): 473-479.