A newly developed array that measures vibrations across the skin could help engineers design optimal, wearable tactile displays.
These vibrotactile displays could assist people in navigating unfamiliar territories and could also serve as a tactile guide for the visually and hearing impaired. For instance, vibrations from a wearable, GPS-linked device could tell you to turn right or left, or stop, depending on the pattern of pulses you feel.
Lynette Jones, a senior research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, designs wearable tactile displays. Through her work, she’s observed that the skin is a sensitive — though largely untapped — medium for communication.
“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,” Jones says. “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. Using data from their mechanical and perceptual experiments, Jones’ group is designing arrays that can be worn across the back and around the wrist, and is investigating various ways to present vibrations. For example, a row of vibrations activated sequentially from left to right may tell a driver to turn right; a single motor that buzzes with increasing frequency may be a warning to slow down.