American nanoengineers have taken a major step towards the development of "smart gloves" by creating electronic fingers which can be molded into the shape of a hand and can transmit electric signals to the brain.
The team hopes to one day incorporate the devices into a smart glove that creates virtual sensations, fooling the brain into feeling everything from texture to temperature.
Scientists have already developed circuits that stimulate our sense of touch, Wired News reported.
Some are used in Braille readers that allow blind people to browse the Internet.
The devices work by sending electric currents to receptors in the skin, which interpret them as real sensations.
However, most of these circuits are built on flat, rigid surfaces that can't bend, stretch, or fold, says Darren Lipomi, a nanoengineer at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the new study.
Hoping to create circuits with the flexibility of skin, materials scientist John Rogers of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues cut up nanometer-sized strips of silicon; implanted thin, wavy strips of gold to conduct electricity; and mounted the entire circuit in a stretchable, spider web-type mesh of polymer as a support.
They then embedded the circuit-polyimide structure onto a hollow tube of silicone that had been fashioned in the shape of a finger.
Just like turning a sock inside out, the researchers flipped the structure so that the circuit, which was once on the outside of the tube, was on the inside where it could touch a finger placed against it.
To test the electronic fingers, the researchers put them on and pressed flat objects, such as the top of their desks.
The pressure created electric currents that were transferred to the skin, and the researchers felt them as mild tingling.
The study has been published in the journal Science.