New tech that aims to copy human skin could revolutionize prosthetics

Researchers at Stanford University could change how technology feels and looks with a flexible, skin-like material that can sense the footsteps of an artificial ladybug.
The stretchy material requires the creation of flexible transistors that are placed within thin layers of plastic that can conduct electricity. It can now detect the movement of an artificial ladybug. (Amir Foudeh, Jie Xu, Sihong Wang and Zhenan Bao/Stanford University)
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By Ramraajh Sharvendiran

User interfaces innovations, from the dial to the touchscreen, have radically changed how people interact with computers, but they remain, for the most part, rigid and unbendable.

Researchers at Stanford University are changing that with a flexible, skin-like material that can sense the footsteps of an artificial ladybug. The project is led by Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering.

"We have developed a material that mimics the stretchiness of human skin,  but this is an electronic material," says Bao.

"Our long term vision is to make the future electronics wearable on our body, on our skin and even making implantable electronics for being placed inside our body."

The stretchy sensor required the creation of flexible transistors that are placed within thin layers of plastic that can conduct electricity. The transistors are then sequenced into a grid by layering the plastic.

Our aim is to develop something that ultimately has the sensing capabilities similar as our human hand,-  Zhenan Bao

The layered material is waterproof and can stretch to twice its size without damage. The team believes the technology will revolutionize the way we build our currently rigid technology, making it more adaptable to the human body.

Beyond consumer tech 

The material's potential goes beyond uses in consumer tech, says Bao, who believes in its potential for diagnostics, and to provide feeling for those using prosthetics.

"Our aim is to develop something that ultimately has the sensing capabilities similar as our human hand," says Bao.

Although currently some prosthetics already have general force sensors, this technology can measure more than force, such as temperature, and with greater sensitivity.

Zhenan Bao is a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University. (Stanford University)

This tech's skin-like quality also has a potential use for aiding people with nerve damage, who may not have required a prosthetic.

Beyond that, Bao believes the integration of this technology with humans will open doors for deeper diagnostics.

Its flexibility and sensing capabilities has potential for human implantation, opening the ability to collect biometric data. She hopes that having access to changing biometrics in real time can better predict, prevent, or treat illness as it happens.