New electrode boosts haptic tech, to enhance VR, prosthetics

A team of researchers at the University of California San Diego has made a groundbreaking discovery in the realm of haptic technology, creating an innovative electronic device that can recreate the sensations of pressure and vibration on the skin without causing discomfort. This advancement is set to revolutionize virtual reality, prosthetics, and wearable technologies, offering a more immersive experience.

The device consists of a flexible, stretchy electrode connected to a silicone patch that functions as a wearable sticker on the skin. This electrode, in direct contact with the skin, is wired to an external power source. The electrode’s design is optimized for flexibility and targeted stimulation, with a spring-shaped, concentric pattern that allows it to stretch and conform to the body’s movements. This ensures optimal stretchability and precise electrical current delivery, effectively preventing any pain for the wearer.

By transmitting a mild electrical current through the skin, the device can mimic various touch sensations, from subtle pressure to distinct vibrations. The frequency of the electrical signal determines whether the user feels pressure or vibration. What sets this device apart is its unique electrode design, as existing haptic technologies often use rigid metal electrodes, which can cause discomfort or pain due to poor skin conformity and uneven electrical currents.

In contrast, the new electrode is made from a soft, stretchable polymer that seamlessly adheres to the skin, eliminating air gaps and ensuring a consistent and comfortable flow of electrical current. The device is made from a new polymer material, a unique blend of two well-known polymers – PEDOT:PSS, renowned for its electrical conductivity but inherently rigid, and PPEGMEA, known for its flexibility and stretchiness but lacking conductivity. By optimizing the ratio of these polymer building blocks, the researchers molecularly engineered a material that is both conductive and stretchable.

The researchers conducted tests with 10 participants wearing the device on their forearms. Collaborating with behavioral scientists and psychologists at the University of Amsterdam, they identified the lowest detectable electrical current level and adjusted the frequency to elicit different touch sensations, categorized as pressure or vibration. These new insights could pave the way for the development of advanced haptic devices with applications in various fields, including virtual reality, medical prosthetics, and wearable technology.

In virtual reality, haptic feedback can make the experience more immersive by allowing users to feel objects in the virtual world. In the field of prosthetics, haptic devices can help users regain some of their lost sense of touch. And in wearable technology, haptic feedback can provide a new way to interact with devices. Although further research and development are needed, this innovation marks a significant leap forward in haptic technology.

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