A material known as electronic skin or 'e-skin' has been developed by engineers at the University of California in Berkeley. A combination of thin plastic sheets, flexible wafer material and LEDs, e-skin not only lights up when touched, but also illuminates with greater intensity when more pressure is applied to its surface.
The technology has many possibilities once refined and mass produced. It can best be described as a flexible touch screen and could replace systems that presently rely on mechanical controls.
E-skin could be used in any environment to adjust settings where knobs and levers have been used for that purpose. Interactive wall displays could show video and be controlled by touch. It might even be possible to use in medical applications for monitoring vital signs. It could also give robotic devices what amounts to a digital sense of touch.
The process of making e-skin consists of applying a thin polymer layer to a silicon wafer. The material goes through a semiconductor fabrication process that applies layers of electronic circuitry. Once all the layers have been developed, the plastic layer is peeled off and the resulting material is a flexible, film-like material.
Sensors can detect the pressure being applied by touch. They cause organic LEDs to emit light at an intensity level in proportion to the pressure being applied. Since organic LEDs are used, they do not require backlighting as regular LEDs do.
The next iteration of the e-skin will also respond to temperature and light.
E-skin by itself offers a number of technological possibilities once it gets out of the lab and into commercial production. If it can be further adapted to existing electronics products, the effects could be lifestyle changing. Phones, tablets and big screen televisions would not be so bulky and heavy. In fact they would be so light that they could be rolled up and easily carried away.
For this kind of revolutionary change in product design to happen, a lot of hurdles would need to be overcome. Managing heat and avoiding shorts would be especially more critical. These devices would also have to withstand daily abuse, have the durability to be rolled and unrolled thousands of times and still function. With the rate technology has advanced recently, it might not be too long before this is possible.
Edited by Rich Steeves
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