Surgeons may be known for their incredible precision, but even the most talented practitioners have their limits. An electronic “fingertip” that heightens one’s sense of touch, however, could pave the way for a new breed of high-tech surgical gloves designed to trick the brain into feeling everything from pressure to temperature. A joint effort by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, and China’s Dalian University of Technology, the device consists of ultra-flexible silicon-based electronics and soft sensors mounted onto artificial skin. The smart appendage is molded to fit the wearer’s fingertips, facilitating the transmission of electronic signals—which produce a mild tingling sensation—that could eventually recreate the feeling of heat, texture, motion, and resistance.
Photo by Shutterstock
“Imagine the ability to sense the electrical properties of tissue, and then locally remove that tissue, precisely by local ablation, all via the fingertips using smart surgical gloves,” says John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois and a co-author of the study, which appears in the August 10, 2012 issue of Nantotechnology. “Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, ultrasound imaging could be possible.”
The technology could lead to surgical robots that interact with their surroundings through soft touch.
The technology could also open up possibilities for surgical robots that interact with their surroundings through soft touch. But fingers aren’t the only body part that could benefit from the device. The engineers are now working on a device that would envelop the entire three-dimensional surface of the heart—much like a sock—to allow surgical and diagnostic devices to monitor cardiac arrhythmias. Another possibility? Electronic skin, which could restore sensation to burn victims and amputees who have lost their natural skin.
Future research will delve into providing the device with wireless data and power.