Prosthetic devices of the future, in order to be highly functional and easy to use, will have to incorporate sensors that can relay to the user the pressure of a hand grasp and what the texture of a touched object is like. Researchers from Rice University in Texas and University of Pisa in Italy have combined their expertise to built a prototype system that provides real-time feedback about the size of an object that a powered prosthetic hand is grasping. While the technology is currently limited to measuring and relaying an object’s size, other physical characteristics may one day be integrated to provide a more realistic representation of what is going on inside a prosthetic hand.
At Rice, scientists have been developing their haptic technology for a while now, mostly relying on virtual in silico testing and simple grippers that don’t replicate a true prosthetic. The University of Pisa team, on the other hand, was looking to integrate feedback sensors into a prosthetic hand they developed, leading to a natural collaboration between the two groups.
The technology relies on an arm band that has a motorized component that brushes a piece of rubber against the skin. As the prosthetic’s fingers are opened and closed, the rubber is pulled along the skin to create a stretching sensation. The extent of the stretch is proportional to how open or closed the wrist is, providing the user an immediate sense of its state.
The Rice and Pisa team tested their technology on eighteen healthy individuals, showing that using the sensing system let the subjects have a much better ability to discern different size wooden balls.
The researchers will be presenting their findings next week at the World Haptics 2017 conference in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany.
Here’s a Rice video showing off the technology:
Top image: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University