A Biocompatible Magnetic Skin That Could Enable Remote Gesture Control

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia have recently developed a flexible and imperceptible magnetic skin that delivers permanent magnetic properties to all surfaces to which it is applied. This new artificial skin was presented in a paper published in Wiley’s Advanced Materials Technologies journal and could potentially have several interesting applications. For instance, it could aid the development of more effective tools to assist people with disabilities, enable biomedical professionals to monitor their patients’ vital signs, and lead to new wearable consumer tech.

Adbullah Almansouri, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told TechXplore, “Artificial skins are all about extending our senses or abilities. A great challenge in their development, however, is that they should be imperceptible and comfortable to wear. This is very difficult to achieve reliably and durably, if we need stretchable electronics, batteries, substrates, antennas, sensors, wires, etc. We decided to remove all these delicate components from the skin itself and place them in a comfortable nearby location (i.e., inside of eyeglasses or hidden in a fabric).”

The biomedical skin, developed under the supervision of Prof. J├╝rgen Kosel, is thin, highly flexible and magnetic. When worn by a human user, it can be tracked easily by a nearby magnetic sensor. Suppose a user wears it on his eyelid, his eye movements can be tracked and if worn on fingers, this tech can be used to monitor a person’s physiological responses or even control switches without actually touching them.

Almansouri explained, “The magnetic skin we developed is made of an ultra-flexible, wearable magnetic material. Its unique advantage is that it eliminates the need for any electronics on the skin itself, hence reducing the complexity arising from wires, on-chip batteries, antennas, etc. The magnetic skin can be used to perform relatively sophisticated applications, such as tracking physiological movements (i.e., tracking the eye movement by attaching the magnetic skin on the eyelid) or contact-free user-machine interfaces and device control.”

Most prevailing artificial skins at present require additional electronic components and complex micro-fabrication processes. In contrast, this magnetic skin is easy to assemble because it is made by mixing an elastomer matrix with magnetic powder which is then dried at room temperature. When this effective yet simple fabrication process is complete, the material is magnetized with electro or permanent magnets by employing a specific procedure customized around its intended application. The end product is then finalized by integrating a simple, off-the-shelf magnetic sensor.

Almansouri added, “Another feature of the magnetic skin is that it can be fabricated in any shape or color, which means it could be shaped and colored like your favorite Emoji, a company or research team’s logo, etc.”.

The lightweight artificial skin developed by Almansouri and his colleagues maintains a magnetization of up to 360 mT. Its simplistic design and fabrication process completely eliminates the need for electronics, batteries and other components. The absence of any wiring or other integrated hardware makes the material very easy to implement and use. As per the researchers, any user can wear and use their device with just a few minutes of basic training, even someone with basic knowledge of the technology can start his/her own artificial skin project.

Almansouri said, “We are hoping that our magnetic skin will help to realize practical solutions that can improve the quality of many lives. A user survey we carried out confirmed that the magnetic skin can be comfortably worn and this opens the door for delicate measurements like the movement of the eye.”

This biocompatible and imperceptible wearable tech allows the development of a wide range of useful and innovative tools, monitoring physiological responses as well as for remote gesture control. One segment where it can make a huge impact would be in the integration of new technologies to assist people with disabilities. For example, combining the magnetic skin with smart home applications would permit physically disabled individuals to carry out actions like switching on the lights, turning on the washing machine, etc. remotely.

Prof. Kosel said, “We believe that this imperceptible magnetic skin has a great potential to improve the quality of our life. For example, it could enable the development of comfortable methods for tracking sleep quality and eye movement, which is of interest in sleep laboratories or to monitor eye diseases, magnetic hands for virtual reality and augmented reality applications, magnetic gloves for contact-free switching and control in sterile environments, and to track vital signs in biomedical applications.”

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