Of course, we’re not talking about “feel” as in experiencing emotion, so you can continue yelling insults at your Roomba guilt-free. We’re talking about feeling with fingers that, eerily enough, are covered in fingerprints.
Developed by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, the BioTac features a soft skin-like material set over a liquid filling, all centered around a solid “skeleton.” The faux-fingerprints help the finger pick up on vibrations as it moves across a surface, which are then detected by a hydrophone inside the “bone” and processed by a computer to figure out what the material is.
It’s actually pretty similar to how a human judges texture, except that the BioTac is even more sensitive than a human finger. The researchers had it feel 117 common materials — it correctly identified 95% of them, touching an object an average of five times. The finger can even tell which direction an object is moving and what temperature it is.
The most obvious use for this technology is in human prostheses. If you could somehow input the sensors into the human brain, you would basically have Luke Skywalker’s hand in Star Wars, a robotic limb capable of feeling and manipulating objects.
BioTac could also be very valuable for robots. Like I’ve written about before, soft materials and advanced sensors are the key to building robots that can interact with human beings. Pliable, sensitive fingers are far more desirable inside your home than stiff metal arms that might hurt people.
But lets not overlook the ultimate use for BioTac — massage-bots. I expect to see them in the SkyMall catalog any day now.