These tiny plastic bubbles could allow virtual high-fives or sophisticated touchscreen devices

Imagine learning to play the cello and having each correct note confirmed not just by the sound produced, but by a tiny bubble that appears under your finger. Or imagine giving a high-five to friend through your computer screen, and having the screen replicate the feel and pressure of their hand.

Human touch replay bubbleUniversity of California-San Diego researchers reported Monday they have successfully recorded and replayed touch with a sheet of plastic bubbles that can pop out to replicate the original pressure of a touch.

“Touch was largely bypassed by the digital revolution, except for touch-screen displays, because it seemed too difficult to replicate what analog [touch] devices can produce,” UC-San Diego electrical and computer engineering professor Deli Wang said in a release. “One of the critical challenges in developing touch systems is that the sensation is not one thing. It can involve the feeling of physical contact, force or pressure, hot and cold, texture and deformation, moisture or dryness, and pain or itching. It makes it very difficult to fully record and reproduce the sense of touch.”

The technology doesn’t replicate all of those characteristics of touch (yet), but it does replicate pressure. The researchers say it could have big applications for industries like medicine, gaming and e-commerce.

Robotic surgery stands out as a possible application. Right now, surgeons controlling a robotic hand to cut into a patient don’t have the same pressure feedback as they do when they use their actual hand, which can be dangerous during highly precise surgeries. Pressing into a material that replicates the resistance of skin or an organ would significantly improve the information they have during surgery.

The plastic bubbles are transparent, which means they could work well in combination with screens. The current prototype is an 8×8 matrix of bubbles. Smaller and a larger number of bubbles could eventually lead to more accurate, life-like touch recreations.

Red circles point out where individual bubbles have emerged. Photo courtesy of UC-San Diego.
Red circles point out where individual bubbles have emerged. Photo courtesy of UC-San Diego.

Manufacturers have already debuted one-sided feedback systems like this, such as buttons that spring up from a flat smartphone screen. IBM also plans to debut screens that replicate the feel of an object; customers could touch, say, a dress before they buy it. The advancement here is the opportunity to play back touch from a fellow human.