Wearable computers might use a new paper-thin interactive “e-skin,” the first made of plastic

As consumer demand for wearable electronics grows, researchers are very interested in new materials that could be used to make flexible interactive displays. At the University of California-Berkeley, a team turned to a more familiar material: plastic.

The team created a flexible 16×16 pixel screen, dubbed “e-skin,” that lights up where it is touched. If more pressure is applied, it glows brighter. It could be used as interactive wallpaper, wrapped around a wrist or integrated into a car dashboard for touch control. The team also believes it could give robots a more precise sense of touch.

To build the e-skin, they solidified a layer of plastic on top of a silicon wafer. Then they added a layer of electronic components and peeled the plastic off the silicon base. The resulting plastic film contained one transistor, LED and pressure sensor per pixel. They published their results today in Nature Materials.

“Integrating sensors into a network is not new, but converting the data obtained into something interactive is the breakthrough,” study co-author Chuan Wang said in a release. “And unlike the stiff touchscreens on iPhones, computer monitors and ATMs, the e-skin is flexible and can be easily laminated on any surface.”

The electronics can be added with existing semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The use of plastic is also interesting because of its relative cheapness. The team is now looking into making the e-skin sensitive to light and temperature too.

Clear plastic has been emerging as a touchscreen material for some time now. Last year, a Japanese company revealed a smartphone covering that is scratch and fingerprint resistant.