Scientists have tried a lot of tactics to help us better communicate with our technology, whether it’s giving them a voice or a humanoid-like body to help us move things. But new research takes that a step further by designing synthetic skin that looks, feels and reacts like human skin.
The research will be presented Sunday in New Orleans during the 32nd ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium and details the process researchers from the University of Bristol took to discover what characteristics would be most appealing in a synthetic skin, and how they could implement those in a responsive and tactile way. The result is a fleshy colored robot that can “feel.” Will this skin one day cover the surface of robots like Sophia? Reader, we can only guess the answer is probably yes.
The study describes a process in which “an electrode layer of conductive threads” is sandwiched between two lifelike pieces of silicon designed to mimic human skin thickness, texture, and pigment. The skin interfaces, which were molded to touch pads, cellphones, and robots, were able to recognize and respond to eight different unique gestures.
“This is the first time we have the opportunity to add skin to our interactive devices. The idea is perhaps a bit surprising, but skin is an interface we are highly familiar with so why not use it and its richness with the devices we use every day?” Dr. Anne Roudaut, Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Bristol who supervised the research, said in statement about the research.
When it comes to answering “why not?”, any onlookers of this technology might have a few queasy reasons why. In their study the researchers reference the potential that their artificial skin might trigger in some viewers a sense of the Uncanny Valley — a sensation originally derived from Freud that describes that uncomfortable chill or sick feeling we might feel when looking at something that isn’t human but looks pretty damn close. And while whether or not something feels uncanny is viewer dependent, this artificial skin certainly has potential to be.
With skin thickness that is just pudgy enough to pinch but not so thick as to appear inhuman, and a skin texture that is not only close to natural skin tones but also marked by small wrinkles and pores, this artificial skin is certainly well within creepy territory. Don’t believe us? Check out the video below to see for yourself.
But, according to the researchers, as near to humans as possible is what they were going for anyway because they believe these shared characteristics and modalities will enable better communication between humans and machines.
“We believe our work extends the boundary of traditional interactive devices by opening up the user experience to anthropomorphic interfaces and to new familiar organic interaction between humans and machines,” the authors write in their study. “This work also explores the intersection between man and machine (human augmentation) from a new perspective: Instead of augmenting the human with parts of machines, we demonstrate how machines can be augmented with parts of [a] human.”
In relation to the gestures the skin recognizes, which included pinching, slapping, tickling, caressing or tapping, the authors say that these human-native gestures will allow users to more intuitively express emotions through their devices. To facilitate this the skin was designed to recognize the anger behind a slap and either display a corresponding emoji or create a corresponding reaction in an on-screen avatar.
As research continues into the nuances of this skin, researchers say that better interpretation of these kinds of gestures (i.e. what is a playful slap versus an angry slap) will be important to further increase the flow of communication between the device and humans.
As for where you can expect to see artificial skin like this, the researchers don’t give many specifics, but robots already designed for human interaction — like elderly care bots or bots designed for autistic children — might be a good guess as better communication between humans and these robots is always necessary.
But if you want a slap-able phone case as shown in the video… you might have to build that yourself. Luckily, the paper gives you a pretty good idea of how you can.