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Electronic ‘Smart Fingers’ Will Allow Doctors to Operate Via Virtual Touch

John Rogers/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Courtesy

Someday soon, hospital patients won’t be hooked up to wires, large equipments and monitors, instead, electronic patches will be temporarily tattooed onto their bodies.

Thanks to the invention of electronic circuits, doctors will be able to monitor their heart beat and vital signs without poking with instruments. Patients wearing neck patches will even be able to communicate with robots, who will translate throat muscle movements into simple speech.

The same touchy engineers have invented a new virtual tactile system, Smart Fingers that will bring a real sense of touch to telepresence applications someday. Now it’s easier for surgical robots or human doctors to feel surfaces virtually through special smart gloves designed to trick the brain into thinking it’s feeling the sensations. Electronic fingertips could give robots a sense of touch, or even allow doctors to operate via virtual touch.

This system is very similar to the first peelable, temporary tattoo-like skin electronics Rogers and his colleagues developed last year. In that system, morphable electrodes were pasted onto the skin that could be used as health monitoring devices among other uses. Similarly, Smart fingers are designed by flexible skin-molded fingertip sensors made of super-thin silicon sheets. The gold conductive circuit is embedded in a flexible polymer material called polyimide. Its silicon mold can be fitted to a fingertip shape. The electric currents are transmitted to your skin when you press something.

In tests, John Rogers and colleagues at the University of Illinois donned the electronic fingertips and started touching flat objects. The resulting currents translated to a slight tingling sensation in their flesh-based fingertips. This is a step toward creating electrical signals that could be interpreted by the nervous system.  Eventually, electronic fingers could create patterns of signals that can recreate sensations, from heat to texture. The fingertips could also include separate sensors to detect things like motion or vibration.

Rogers says in a press release that they could be used as medical devices — perhaps for ultrasound imaging, or even as an ablation device, burning away problem tissue or creating sutures. “Imagine the ability to sense the electrical properties of tissue, and then locally remove that tissue, precisely by local ablation, all via the fingertips using smart surgical gloves,” he said.

Likewise, the Smart fingers could conceivably be designed to fit any body part in need of some tactile feedback — like the heart, where it could sense muscle contraction or get pumping properly. The custom sensors and actuators would provide advanced tools to diagnose and treat cardiac arrhythmia. The first step towards this goal, however, is to find a way to provide the skin with wireless power and data transfer capabilities. The time is not far when this technology will replace traditional means of treatments.

The research appeared in a recently published journal of Nanotechnology.