Virtual reality set-ups available today require users to wear cumbersome, head-mounted gear, and allows for manipulation of digital objects by way of two controllers held in both hands. Needless to say, this can break immersion to a substantial degree.
Luckily, researchers are already on it – a group of engineers at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Germany, have developed a magneto-sensitive electronic skin, or e-skin, capable of roughly the same functionality, minus the bulky design.
The device, barely perceptible when applied to real skin, tracks its movement and location by reference to the angle of an external magnetic field. Resulting data is then uploaded to a computer for digital reconstruction and translation into specific outputs (functions and commands).
Study lead-author Denys Makarov and his PhD student Gilbert Santiago Cañón Bermúdez already see potential applications in gaming, software design, business, physical therapy, and security.
“Imagine that you want to press a button that is located in a restricted environment that you can’t touch. You would have to use some touch-less means of interacting with this button. A combination of magnetic field sensors and permanent magnets can do this job,” said Makarov.
The sensor was developed by arranging tiny magneto-sensitive components in a novel way. “It’s the placement and packaging of a high-performance spin valve stack in a Wheatstone bridge on ultra-thin foils – that’s where a lot of know-how came,” said Cañón Bermúdez.
While magnetic sensors and electronic “skin” technology are nothing new, Makarov’s e-skin is the first to successfully combine both features without limiting users’ range of motion. Furthermore, unlike optical approaches, e-skin does not require a direct line of sight between a virtual object and the sensors themselves.
The next step for the team will be to eliminate the need for permanent magnets and instead rely on geo-magnetics (Earth’s own magnetic fields) to track positioning – much like birds and insects do.
“This is something for which our community has been waiting for a long time and is the topic of our current development,” Makarov said. “We’re very close”.
The paper was published on 19th January 2018 in the journal Science Advances.