Virtual worlds: Tactile tattoos

image: The European Research Council has awarded funding to Professor Juergen Steinle through a Proof of Concept Grant. Saarland University’s computer scientist uses thin electronic foils in order to make virtual worlds more “tangible.”

Virtual and Augmented Reality, VR and AR are quickly losing their niche and becoming more mainstream. The metaverse can be viewed as gaming and applications in industry as well as new areas of Telemedicine. Augmented reality applications tend to focus primarily on the visual sense. ‘The sense of touch is usually left out of the equation, even though it plays a very crucial role in how we experience the world,’ explained Professor Jürgen Steimle, who heads the Saarland University research group on human-computer interaction at the Saarland Informatics Campus. Steimle believes that virtual environments with tactile feedback would enhance the user’s experience.

However, this is currently only partially possible. It is common to use handheld controllers to generate vibrotactile information using motors and moving parts. Also, gloves with vibrating elements and other moving parts are now possible. Jürgen Steimle and his group have set themselves the task of developing and improving the approaches used.

The project ‘Tacttoo” is one result. It’s a portmanteau of the words tactile and tattoo. It describes the work done in this project. A super-thin electronic film, only 35 micrometers thick, can be applied to skin as a temporary tattoo. It can stimulate the senses of touch electronically without any moving parts. It is thin and easy to feel and perceive objects. This opens up new possibilities. Tacttoo can be used to create a new haptic experience using digital objects, just like other methods. It is however more realistic because of the higher resolution. Other sensory impressions can be used to enhance the interaction between real objects.

The technology could also serve as a tool for product design. To test the haptic properties and properties of different materials, Augmented Reality could be used in conjunction with a physical prototype. Artificially-generated buttons or other controls can also be used to simulate tactile sensations. For surgeon training, virtual reality environments have been used in medical educational. Steimle’s method could be used to provide realistic feedback without restricting the motor dexterity required by medical trainees.

Steimle’s team will be working on technology transfer aspects of the ERC funded project “FeelXR”: Feel through Haptic Feedback for Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. They will refine and identify existing applications, as well as new ones. Steimle said that they want to explore the commercial potential for Tattoos using a combination market analysis, application development and collaboration with industrial partners. The Proof of Concept Grants was established by the European Union. These grants are only available to scientists who have been awarded higher levels of EU funding or have developed fundamental technologies with high potential for commercial and social innovation. The funding volume is €150,000 over 18 months.


Background information about the Saarland Informatics College
Saarland Informatics Campus houses more than 900 researchers and 2500 students from over 80 different countries. It is one the most important European locations for computer science. Four of the most prominent research institutions in the country are the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, the Max Planck Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. The Center for Bioinformatics is the Center for Bioinformatics as well as the Center for Informatics.

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