The sensor uses a highly conductive gel sandwiched between layers of silicone. This allows different types of touch to be detected, including swiping and tapping, even when it is stretched, folded or bent.
"There are sensors that can detect pressure or a hovering finger. There are also sensors that are foldable, transparent and stretchable. Our contribution is a device that combines all those functions in one compact package," said UBC PhD student Mirza Saquib Sarwar.
According to the researchers, the prototype measures 5 x 5cm but could be easily scaled up as it uses inexpensive, widely available materials.
"It's entirely possible to make a room-sized version of this sensor for just dollars per square metre, and then put sensors on the wall, on the floor, or over the surface of the body," said Sarwar. "And because it's cheap to manufacture, it could be embedded in disposable wearables like health monitors."
The sensor could also be integrated in robotic ‘skins’ to make human-robot interactions safer. "Currently, machines are kept separate from humans in the workplace because of the possibility that they could injure humans,” added professor John Madden. “If a robot could detect our presence and be 'soft' enough that they don't damage us during an interaction, we could safely exchange tools with them, they could pick up objects without damaging them and safely probe their environment.”