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While touch may be subtle, the information it communicates can be understood and acted upon quickly. For the first time, scientists are reporting that they have developed a stretchable “electronic skin” that can detect not just pressure, but also which direction it’s coming from. They say that this advancement could have applications for prosthetic limbs, robotic skins, and rehabilitation devices.

Researchers at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and the Korea Institute of Machinery & Materials, explain that electronic skins are flexible, film-like devices designed to detect pressure, read brain activity, monitor heart rate, or perform other functions.

To boost sensitivity to touch, some of them mimic microstructures found in beetles and dragonflies, for example, but none reported so far can sense the direction of stress. This is the kind of information that can tell our bodies a lot about the shape and texture of an object and how to hold it.

The researchers chose to work on an electronic skin based on the structure of human skin so it could “feel” in three dimensions. They designed a wearable artificial skin made out of tiny domes that interlock and deform when poked or even when air is blown across it. They say that it can sense the location, intensity, and direction of pokes, air flows, and vibrations.

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