Electronic skin lights up when pressed

Engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, have created a user-interactive sensor network on flexible plastic. The electronic skin, or e-skin, responds to touch by instantly lighting up. The more intense the pressure, the brighter the light it emits.

In addition to giving robots a finer sense of touch, the Berkeley team believes the new e-skin could be used to create things like wallpaper that doubles as a touchscreen display, and dashboard laminates that allow drivers to adjust electronic controls with the wave of a hand.

"With the interactive e-skin, we have demonstrated an elegant system on plastic that can be wrapped around different objects to enable a new form of human-machine interfacing," said lead researcher Ali Javey.

The e-skin measures 16 x16 pixels. Within each pixel lies a transistor, an organic led and a pressure sensor.

To create the device, the engineers cured a thin layer of polymer on top of a silicon wafer.

Once the plastic hardened, they ran the material through fabrication tools already in use in the semiconductor industry to layer on the electronic components. After the electronics were stacked, they simply peeled off the plastic from the silicon base, leaving a freestanding film with a sensor network embedded in it.

"The electronic components are all vertically integrated, which is a fairly sophisticated system to put onto a relatively cheap piece of plastic," said Javey. "What makes this technology potentially easy to commercialise is that the process meshes well with existing semiconductor machinery."

Javey's lab is now in the process of engineering the e-skin sensors to respond to temperature and light as well as pressure.

Laura Hopperton

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