Electroluminescent Synthetic Skin Could Help Robots Connect With Humans

Chris Larson, Cornell Chronicle
Chris Larson, Cornell Chronicle / Chris Larson, Cornell Chronicle

A group of researchers at Cornell University have developed an electroluminescent synthetic skin that can be stretched up to six times its original size while still emitting multicolored lights. They believe the colorful synthetic skin could one day help robots convey emotion and connect with humans

Made of layers of hydrogel electrodes and a dielectric elastomer sheet, the synthetic skin is stretchy and durable—perfect for use in the construction of soft robots, according to the study published in Science. The technology could be used to create robots that are more flexible and can change their shape and color according to human needs. For example, researchers believe the "skin" could be used to build a health care robot that displays patient information like temperature and pulse, and even react to a patient’s mood. 

“We can take these pixels that change color and put them on these robots, and now we have the ability to change their color,” Researcher Rob Shepherd told the Cornell Chronicle. “Why is that important? For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have emotional connection with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions.”

Shepherd and his team are by no means the only researchers working on synthetic skin for robots. Last fall, for instance, researchers at Stanford announced they had developed an artificial skin that could “feel” pressure. But Shepherd claims that he and his team have created a unique synthetic skin that can withstand twice the strain of previous stretchable skins.

In addition to its robotic applications, researcher Chris Larson says the electroluminescent skin could have a range of uses, from applications in healthcare to creating new stretchy wearables. “You could have a rubber band that goes around your arm that also displays information,” Larson said. “You could be in a meeting and have a rubber band-like device on your arm and could be checking your email. That’s obviously in the future, but that’s the direction we’re looking in.”