BERLIN: Scientists have developed ultrathin electronic skin tattoos that can help control virtual and physical objects with mere hand gestures.
The extremely thin, almost invisible foil that sticks to the palm of the hand like a second skin, have sensors which provide people with a "sixth sense" for magnetic fields.
These sensors will enable people to manipulate everyday objects or control appliances both in the physical world and in augmented or virtual reality with mere gestures, similar to how we use a smartphone now.
Researchers demonstrated that the ultrathin, compliant magnetic field sensors in combination with a permanent magnet are able to sense and process body motion in a room.
"Our electronic skin traces the movement of a hand, for example, by changing its position with respect to the external magnetic field of a permanent magnet," said Canon Bermudez of Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) in Germany.
"This not only means that we can digitise its rotations and translate them to the virtual world but also even influence objects there," said Bermudez, lead author of the study.
Using this technique, the researchers managed to control a virtual light bulb on a computer screen in a touchless way.
To achieve this result, they set a permanent magnet in a ring-shaped plastic structure emulating a dial.
Then, they associated the angle between the wearable sensor and the magnetic source with a control parameter which modulated the intensity of the light bulb.
"By coding the angles between 0 and 180 degrees so that they corresponded to a typical hand movement when adjusting a lamp, we created a dimmer - and controlled it just with a hand movement over the permanent magnet," said Denys Makarov from HZDR.
The researchers were also able to use a virtual dial in the same way. The approach provides a unique alternative for interfacing the physical and the virtual world that goes far beyond what is possible with current technologies.
"To manipulate virtual objects, current systems essentially capture a moving body by optical means," Makarov said.
This requires a load of cameras and accelerometers as well as fast image data processing, he added.
"Because they are so bulky, the standard gloves and glasses hamper the experience of virtual reality," he added.
"As our polymer foils are not even three micrometres thick, you can easily wear them on your body. Just by way of comparison: a normal human hair is roughly 50 micrometres thick," said Martin Kaltenbrunner, from Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU) in Austria.
The sensors can also withstand bending, folding and stretching without losing their functionality. They are suitable for the incorporation into soft, shape-able materials like textiles to manufacture wearable electronics.
No direct line of sight between the object and the sensors is necessary, researchers said.
This could open up potential applications in the security industry, as well. Buttons or control panels in rooms which cannot be entered in hazardous situations, for example, could be operated by remote control via the sensors.