Physical therapy a potential application for ‘sensitive’ artificial skin

Engineers and roboticists in Europe have invented an artificial skin that can provide wearers with haptic feedback—replicating the human sense of touch—for potential applications in various fields, including medical rehabilitation and physical therapy.  

The work was conducted at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, aka “EPFL”) and published in Soft Robotics.

The artificial skin is soft and supple enough to flex with the wearer’s movements. Its haptic feedback mechanism uses sensors and signals to communicate pressure and vibration.

The team’s key innovation is the development of “an entirely soft artificial skin where both sensors and actuators are integrated,” explains PhD candidate Harshal Sonar, the study’s lead author, in a news item published by the school.

“This gives us closed-loop control, which means we can accurately and reliably modulate the vibratory stimulation felt by the user,” Sonar adds. “This is ideal for wearable applications, such as for testing a patient’s proprioception in medical applications.”

The artificial skin can be stretched up to four times its original length for up to a million cycles, according to EPFL. The inventors have successfully tested their device only on fingers, but they’ve announced plans to build on the accomplishment.

“The next step will be to develop a fully wearable prototype for applications in rehabilitation and virtual and augmented reality,” says Sonar. “The prototype will also be tested in neuroscientific studies, where it can be used to stimulate the human body while researchers study dynamic brain activity in magnetic resonance experiments.”