Wearable device could improve communication between humans, robots

The Robot Report

An international team of scientists has developed an ultra-thin, wearable electronic device that facilitates smooth communication between humans and machines. The researchers said the new device is easy to manufacture and imperceptible when worn. It could be applied to human skin to capture various types of physical data for better health monitoring and early disease detection, or it could enable robots to perform specific tasks in response to physical cues from humans.

Wearable human-machine interfaces have had challenges — some are made from rigid electronic chips and sensors that are uncomfortable and restrict the body’s motion, while others consist of softer, more wearable elastic materials but suffer from slow response times.

While researchers have developed thin inorganic materials that wrinkle and bend, the challenge remains to develop wearable devices with multiple functions that enable smooth communication between humans and machines.

The team that wrote the paper included Kyoseung Sim, Zhoulyu Rao; Faheem Ershad; Jianming Lei, Anish Thukral, Jie Chen, and Cunjiang Yu at University of Houston. It also included Zhanan Zou and Jianling Xiao at University of Colorado, Boulder, and Qing-An Huang at Southeast University in Nanjing, China.

Wearable nanomembrane reads human muscle signals

Kyoseung Sim and company have designed a nanomembrane made from indium zinc oxide using a chemical processing approach that allows them to tune the material’s texture and surface properties. The resulting devices were only 3 to 4 micrometers thick, and snake-shaped, properties that allow them to stretch and remain unnoticed by the wearer.

When worn by humans, the devices could collect signals from muscle and use them to directly guide a robot, enabling the user to feel what the robot hand experienced. The devices maintain their function when human skin is stretched or compressed.

Wearable device could improve communication between humans, robots

Soft, unnoticeable, multifunctional, electronics-based, wearable human-machine interface devices. Credit: Cunjiang Yu

The researchers also found that sensors made from this nanomembrane material could be designed to monitor UV exposure (to mitigate skin disease risk) or to detect skin temperature (to provide early medical warnings), while still functioning well under strain.

Editor’s note: This month’s print issue of The Robot Report, which is distributed with Design World, focuses on exoskeletons. It will be available soon.

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