E-Skin Brings Sense of Touch to Prosthetic Hands
'Phantom limb' – the perception of still having a missing body part – is a sensory illusion experienced by many amputees. But engineers at the John Hopkins University in the US have created an electronic skin that will soon make this illusion a reality by giving prosthetics the sense of touch.
As explained in the June 2018 research article, the 'e-dermis' is an electronic skin made of fabric and rubber that's layered on top of a prosthetic limb – such as the fingertips of a prosthetic hand. It electrically stimulates the arm's nerves to recreate the sense of touch on the person's fingertips.
The method used is called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or Tens, and is non-invasive – but still feels like a real skin. "After many years I felt my hand, as if a hollow shell got filled with life again," said the team's anonymous principal tester.
E-dermis is not yet sensitive to temperature – but it can detect shapes and perceive pain when it touches something sharp. This is particularly useful for alerting wearers to potential damage, particularly to lower-limb prosthetics. With up to 40,000 amputations performed annually in the US, the innovative e-skin could dramatically improve amputees' quality of life (NCBI, 2018).
Accessibility tech that enhances the lives of people with disabilities is a key area of opportunity, as outlined in CES 2018: Personal Electronics and 10 Tech Trends to Watch in 2018. For more on the technologies that empower people with disabilities, see Design for Disability: Transformative Tech.