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A bionic skin could soon be a widespread reality

As the intersection of medicine and technology continues to blur the line between science fiction and real world science, a recent innovation in Tokyo has stirred excitement among medical professionals around the world. Takao Someya, a scientist at the University of Tokyo, has created a bionic skin, or an e-skin, that could revolutionize the field of medicine. Capable of equipping humans with unprecedented levels of sensitivity when it comes to touch, Someya thinks that this new skin could help doctors feel a tiny tumor otherwise undetectable without a scan or surgery.

Ideally, the Japanese scientist wants to see his invention worn in the form of a glove, tattooed onto the body, or even sewn into our clothes, all of which could help humans monitor vital signs or predict illnesses like never before. Ambitiously, Someya says that this could happen within the next few years.

While Someya’s original vision for the bionic skin involved robots rather than humans, his concept has evolved to include an even broader use: “I imagined this futuristic scene where a robot shaking hands with someone could detect their emotion — like passion, or sorrow,” Someya told CNN. But 15 years later, he’s managed to do much more.

In order to mimic human skin, which is inundated by some two million pain receptors, the electrical engineering professor knew he’d have his work cut out for him. So, as CNN reports, Someya connected “sensors, with the ability to detect pressure and temperatures between 30 degrees C to 80 degrees C (86 degrees F to 176 degrees F), with organic semi-conductors that were naturally soft and biocompatible — the ideal material for e-skin.” Then, these materials were placed on an “‘active matrix’ grid system traditionally used in LCD displays, enabling each sensor to have an address it could be located at on the grid.” And by placing these sensors on plastic film rather than a rigid surface, Someya created a super thin, flexible “skin” of his own.

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A simultaneous innovation at the time in Princeton by Professor Sigurd Wagner inspired Someya’s team to create stretchable skin by “ink-jet printing their organic sensor grids onto plastic films, which were then laminated onto a pre-stretched rubber substrate.” This allowed the Japanese scientists to achieve a thin plastic also capable of expanding and shrinking. And as they made the plastic thinner, they found that it got stronger, as well.

So here we are, in 2016, with the very real possibility of true bionic skin that has a wide range of applications. Someya hopes that the skins could help monitor oxygen levels inside a patient during surgery, or improve today’s prosthetics. And outside of the hospital, Someya says these e-skins could prove revolutionary in the health-tracking and wearable industries.

“The ultimate goal, our dream, is to harmonize humans and robots by making full use of soft electronics,” he says. “So humans get closer to robots and robots get closer to humans.”