Skin vibration measurements help develop wearable technology

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

Feel that buzzing in your pocket? Or is it coming from your jacket?  Blame the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)! You may have heard about wearable electronics, a new kind of technology that allows you to have your gadgets embedded in body. Well, MIT is getting in on the game with research into how the human skin reacts to sensations.

Someday, things like a Global Positioning System (GPS) – which can identify where you’re located and help you find directions to where you’d like to go – may be implanted inside our skin, buzzing when we make a wrong turn. It could also be used to help the visually and hearing impaired, guiding them in way that their eyes and ears can’t do as well.

CompassUseMapMarkedLynette Jones, a senior research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, helps design these wearable “tactile” – touch-based – displays. She says, “If you compare the skin to the retina, you have about the same number of sensory receptors, you just have them over almost two square meters of space, unlike the eye where it’s all concentrated in an extremely small area.” In other words, our skin is kind of like a super stretched out eye.

So, what are some of the challenges? Well, it’s very hard to send information across the skin in an accurate way. People are sensitive in different ways, so someone’s hand might react more to “stimuli” – things that stimulate – whereas another person might have better responses on their forearm. Jones is testing people to see where they respond the best to stimulation, fitting them with vibrating motors in the palm, forearm, and thigh. She tests different vibrations to see where they are the most sensitive, and how far from the motors they can feel vibrations.

With the data Jones and her team are finding, she hopes to develop wearables that can one day do things like help firefighters and emergency workers through dangerous areas or aid joggers in traveling through an unfamiliar city.

Featured image courtesy of MIT.