Engineering Minute

Engineering Minute – Wearable Device “Speaks” Through Your Skin

Students at Rice University's Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Laboratory (MAHI) are working on a new type of wearable device that "speaks" to you through your skin. The new type of smart technology would allow direct touch-based communications from nearby robots, bypassing visual and audio clutter to quickly and clearly communicate. The device could be imbedded in a wearer's smartwatch giving signals during everyday applications as well as emergency situations where a person may need to navigate their surroundings with little or no audio or visual cues.


“Skin covers our whole body and has many kinds of receptors in it, and we see that as an underutilized channel of information,” said O’Malley, director of the Rice Robotics Initiative and Rice’s MAHI Laboratory. "I can see a car’s turn signal, but only if I’m looking at it. We want technology that allows people to feel the robots the around them and to clearly understand what those robots are about to do and where they are about to be. Ideally, if we do this correctly, the cues will be easy to learn and intuitive.”


A haptic armband created by Rice's MAHI lab
A new study by researchers from Rice University’s Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Laboratory found users needed less than two hours of training to learn to “feel” most words that were transmitted by a haptic armband that communicates with signals comprised of squeeze, stretch and vibration. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

From the Rice University article: "For example, in a study presented this month at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) in Singapore, MAHI graduate student Nathan Dunkelberger showed that users needed less than two hours of training to learn to “feel” most words that were transmitted by a haptic armband. The MAHI-developed 'multi-sensory interface of stretch, squeeze and integrated vibrotactile elements,' or MISSIVE, consists of two bands that fit around the upper arm. One of these can gently squeeze, like a blood-pressure cuff, and can also slightly stretch or tug the skin in one direction. The second band has vibrotactile motors — the same vibrating alarms used in most cellphones — at the front, back, left and right sides of the arm."


Using both cues mentioned above, the team created a vocabulary consisting of 23 of the most common English vocal sounds, such as "ch" and "ow". These sounds, known as phenomes, are used in combination to create words. Communication using phenomes is much faster than spelling out words. Subjects need to only know how a word is pronounced, not how it is spelled. Preliminary tests showed that with just under 2 hours of training, a subject can successfully learn how to "read" and respond to the haptic signals created by the armband.


Read more about the wearable device that "speaks" through your skin at Rice Univesity.