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Designing tactile displays through skin vibrations

18 Jun 2013

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Lynette Jones, a senior research scientist of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has unveiled the skin's potential in helping engineers design tactile displays.

"If you compare the skin to the retina, you have about the same number of sensory receptors, you just have them over almost two square meters of space, unlike the eye where it's all concentrated in an extremely small area," said Lynette Jones. "The skin is generally as useful as a very acute area. It's just that you need to disperse the information that you're presenting."

Knowing just how to disperse tactile information across the skin is tricky. For instance, people may be much more sensitive to stimuli on areas like the hand, as opposed to the forearm, and may respond best to certain patterns of vibrations. Such information on skin responsiveness could help designers determine the best configuration of motors in a display, given where on the skin a device would be worn.

Jones has built an array that precisely tracks a motor's vibrations through skin in three dimensions. The array consists of eight miniature accelerometers and a single pancake motor—a type of vibrating motor used in cell phones. She used the array to measure motor vibrations in three locations: the palm of the hand, the forearm and the thigh. From her studies with eight healthy participants, Jones found that a motor's mechanical vibrations through skin drop off quickly in all three locations, within 8mm from where the vibrations originated.


MIT tactile display

Vibrotactile displays mounted around the waist and back are used to study how people use vibrotactile cues to navigate in unfamiliar environments.


Jones also gauged participants' perception of vibrations, fitting them with a 3 x 3 array of pancake motors in these three locations on the body. While skin generally stopped vibrating 8mm from the source, most people continued to perceive the vibrations as far away as 24mm.

When participants were asked to identify specific locations of motors within the array, they were much more sensitive on the palm than on the forearm or thigh. But in all three locations, people were better at picking out vibrations in the four corners of the array, versus the inner motors, leading Jones to posit that perhaps people use the edges of their limbs to localise vibrations and other stimuli.


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