Birds and many other animals are able to perceive the Earth’s magnetic field, an ability that allows them to navigate around the world with magical ease. Scientists at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR), a research center in Dresden, Germany, have developed an electronic skin that can give humans the same capability. The new technology may end up being used to help blind people move around their environment, and to assist those with vertigo and other orientation issues. Moreover, it may prove useful as a basis for an intuitive way to interact with computers, virtual and augmented environments, and to control robotic equipment.
The e-skin consists of a a polymer foil with magnetic field sensors sensitive enough to detect the Earth’s magnetic field. This is an impressive achievement, since a typical fridge magnet generates a magnetic field roughly 1,000 times stronger in its vicinity. The e-skin is very flexible, and so can be attached to the hand or other parts of the body. It was tried as a joystick, of sorts, to control the movements of an avatar within a virtual world, and it worked remarkably well.
Next steps will involve integrating the new sensing capability with other technologies in order to make practical use of the new sensor. Thanks to this and other technologies, we may soon see blind people walking around on their own with remarkable ease and independence that is still not fully possible.
More from Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf:
The sensors, which are ultrathin strips of the magnetic material permalloy, work on the principle of the so-called anisotropic magneto-resistive effect, as Cañón Bermúdez explains: “It means that the electric resistance of these layers changes depending on their orientation in relation to an outer magnetic field. In order to align them specifically with the Earth’s magnetic field, we decorated these ferromagnetic strips with slabs of conductive material, in this case gold, arranged at a 45-degree angle. Thus, the electric current can only flow at this angle, which changes the response of the sensor to render it most sensitive around very small fields. The voltage is strongest when the sensors point north and weakest when they point south.” The researchers conducted outdoor experiments to demonstrate that their idea works in practical settings.
Study in Nature Electronics: Electronic-skin compasses for geomagnetic field-driven artificial magnetoreception and interactive electronics…