Through the use of magnetic fields, scientists have developed an electronic sensor that can simultaneously process both touchless and tactile stimuli. Prior attempts have so far failed to combine these functions on a single device due to overlapping signals of the various stimuli.
The largest human organ — the skin — is likely the most functionally versatile part of the body. It is not only able to differentiate between the most varied stimuli within seconds, but it can also classify the intensity of signals over a broad range. The new sensor is an electronic counterpart with similar characteristics and could simplify the interplay between humans and machines in virtual reality applications.
Current systems work either by only registering physical touch or by tracking objects in a touchless manner. Both interaction pathways have been combined on the sensor, which has been termed a “magnetic microelectromechanical system” (m-MEMS). The sensor processes the electrical signals of the touchless and the tactile interactions in different regions to differentiate the stimuli's origin in real time and suppress disturbing influences from other sources.
On a thin polymer film, the scientists first fabricated a magnetic sensor that relies on the Giant Magneto Resistance (GMR). This film, in turn, was sealed by a silicon-based polymer layer (poly-dimethyl-siloxane) containing a round cavity designed to be precisely aligned with the sensor. Inside this void, a flexible permanent magnet was integrated with pyramid-like tips protruding from its surface. Even under curved conditions, it works without losing its functionality; thus, it can be placed on the fingertip.
This electronic skin — in addition to virtual reality spaces — could also be used, for example, in sterile environments. Surgeons could use the sensors to handle medical equipment without touching it during a procedure, which would reduce the danger of contamination.