Stanford examines skin stretching

March 3, 2008 8:34:36 AM PST
Research is going on at Stanford into a new sensual technology: skin stretching. Stretching and twisting could provide feedback to videogamers and to fighter pilots. It could also substitute for other senses lost by the disabled.What looks like a medieval lie detector, could provide us a new way to experience our world. Stanford researcher Karlin Bark and colleague Jason Wheeler are using this device to explore the practical applications of a new sensation: skin stretch.

Bark was "surprised at how well skin stretch actually worked as a type of feedback."

The sense of touch is really a symphony of sensations--heat and cold, and pressure and vibrations. But until now, stretch didn't get any respect. It turns out that you and I are very sensitive to the intensity, the direction, and the rotation of it.

"We're hoping that's one of the advantages of skin stretch over some of the other more traditional forms of haptic feedback like vibration," says Bark.

"One of the applications that Jason and I have been looking at is for people with prosthetics. If we can develop a device that you can strap onto a different part of your body, that still allows you to sense some of the things that we feel, I think that would help them a lot."

Stan Lemke has worn a prosthetic hand for more than 50 years. In his mind a touch simulator would be especially beneficial to double amputees.

"I think it would be an improvement," says the Korean War vet, "and people would enjoy anything they can get extra out of the limb. Being that I have that in [my good] hand, I don't need it. But it would be beneficial, yes, for a double amputee."

At the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, prosthetics specialist Louis Givens works to stay on top the latest technologies for his patients.

"I think we overlook the feel that we need when we pick up something," says Givens.

"I mean, if I pick this up, in order for me to actually control it, I need to really be able to feel it." Karlin Bark and her colleagues are not working actively with specialists at the VA or anywhere just yet. Many challenges lie ahead for this new field. But it's not a big stretch by any imagination of the sense.

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