CU Boulder creates technology that could allow users to digitize touch

A new 3D technology the size of a Scrabble board may be the key to sending physical touch, like holding the hand of a loved one, over long distances.

University of Colorado Boulder researchers created a new shape-shifting gadget compact enough to fit on a card table that may be able to digitize touch. The device is made from a grid of robotic parts that can sense outside pressure and can move up, down and around.

“As technology has progressed, we started with sending text over long distances, then audio and now video,” said Brian Johnson, one of two lead authors of the study, in a news release.  “But we’re still missing touch.”

The technology has the potential to send touch digitally by creating 3D images of a hand, for example. It could then send the image to another device across the country or world, allowing the receiver to hold the sender’s hand. The device can already change its surface, shake a beaker filled with liquid, generate scrolling 3D text and move a ball around its surface without it falling off.

Researchers outside of CU Boulder have already developed similar devices. However, this tablet is faster, quieter and takes up less room. The robotic machinery within it can activate as much as 50 times per second.

The idea for the technology developed out of a different project to create synthetic organs. CU Boulder researchers secured funding in 2017 from the National Science Foundation to develop sTISSUE — organs that behave and feel like real organs but are made out of silicone-like materials. In developing that technology, the researchers came up with the idea of a tabletop device.

The innovation also builds off of soft, flexible robots created by researchers at CU Boulder called Hydraulically Amplified Self-Healing Electrostatic actuators. Now, researchers are working to find a way to shrink the actuators to increase the resolution of the display, which could do things like generate braille on a phone screen.

“You could imagine arranging these sensing and actuating cells into any number of different shapes and combinations,” Mantas Naris, co-lead author of the paper and CU Boulder engineering doctoral student, said in a news release. “There’s really no limit to what these technologies could, ultimately, lead to.”

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