Artificial skin overcomes barriers to virtual buttons

A University of Sydney researcher is attempting to overcome accessibility issues associated with virtual buttons.

An essential part of many electronic devices, virtual buttons that appear on a screen as an image are difficult to use for the vision impaired due to their lack of tactile response.

This is made particularly tricky on essential devices such as ATMs and monitors, and the widespread use of virtual buttons makes them an essential component of industrial information technology.

Lecturer in human computer interaction, Dr Anusha Withana, has developed wearable technology that bypasses these limitations.

The ultra-thin, extremely flexible device is similar in appearance to sticky tape and can have electronic circuits printed onto it.

This device would allow for the control of devices that require touch, even when the user cannot see what they may be touching.

According to Withana, in introducing a touch-simulation, this allows users to use their other senses simultaneously.

“Some vision-impaired people prefer not to have information come to them through sound, because that’s their connection with the world. If information can come to them in a tactile way, that’s better,” said Withana.

Working with colleagues in Germany, Withana has also developed a fake tattoo that is printed with a circuit made from polymer-based conductive inks, which stretch and move with the skin.

The other benefits of the combination of these technologies is that the devices are super thin, meaning other a normal sense of touch is not interfered with. Additionally, their manufacture is inexpensive, costing less than a cent if mass-produced.

“We want people to be able to wear it today and remove it tomorrow – and we want people to be able to create it themselves,” said Withana.

Withana’s work sits within the field of personalised technology. Using readily available materials and simple production technologies, devices and solutions can be manufactured to suit each individual.