New ‘Skin’ Makes Household Objects Into Robots

This new discovery could give a whole new life to virtual reality.

Two virtual reality players.
Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images

This new discovery could give a whole new life to virtual reality.

Ever wish you could make your favorite plush toy from your childhood walk around, or give your daughter a wave? Many of us might like to see our old Cabbage Patch doll walk over and try to open the fridge or to set our kid’s teddy bear on the floor and watch it crawl toward the family cat. Well, now we have that option.

Scientists have discovered a way to create skins, which fit over objects. And there are infinite ways we could use this new robotic technology. Applications include using these skins to access small, unreachable spaces. Researchers also hope these could someday move tools in space stations, significantly cutting costs for space exploration.

The skin acts much like a blood pressure cuff, except it’s able to provide different pressure in different parts of the skin, thanks to new research.

The research took place at Yale University. Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio and her team of engineers experimented with affixing the skin to objects using different techniques. They were even able to make some objects do things you might see in your typical high school gym class, like the inchworm crawl (using foam tubing). The fabric can also move around by itself, without being attached to anything.

Other uses could have to do more with health benefits, like providing immediate feedback for bad posture or body positioning. This research could also help create new, remote tools for search-and-rescue operations, which can often put rescue crews in hazardous or even deadly situations as they attempt to help or find victims.

The fabric contains air pockets which are able to puff up, or coils that fit the object when heat is applied, so that the device is able to manipulate what’s beneath it by way of remote control.

This research has promising virtual reality applications as well, according to Science News, by adding another sense to your character’s bag of tricks. If you were to wear this stuff, you could not only see and hear in virtual reality, but you might be able to, say, run your hands down the scales of a dragon you’ve just slain, or feel the fur on your horse moving and sweating beneath you as you gallop across a desert landscape. Pretty neat, right? Don’t forget that this could also mean you could get grabbed, poked, or punched. This could make participating in virtual reality feel a lot more real.