Controlling virtual light bulbs without touching them
Using 'e-skin' to control virtual light bulbs without actually touching anything D Makarov

Scientists have developed a crucial link between physical and virtual reality (VR) – a magical 'e-skin' that lets you manipulate objects in the virtual world without touching or seeing them.

At first glance, the skin – which is thinner than a strand of human hair – looks like a simple tattoo, but there is obviously a lot going on in there, and is almost like a typical high-end gadget in a sci-fi movie.

The tiny device carries magnetic sensors that interact with a permanent magnet to detect physical motion and these sensors transmit that information to a connected software.

Working with every angle of motion, the software manipulates an object in virtual reality. This means that adjusting a light dimmer or typing on a virtual keyboard can be done with just a single wave of your hand.

"Our electronic skin traces the movement of a hand, for example, by changing its position with respect to the external magnetic field of a permanent magnet," explains Gilbert Cañón Bermúdez, the lead author of the study. "This not only means that we can digitise its rotations and translate them to the virtual world but also even influence objects there."

The technology is still at a nascent stage but the researchers have already showcased its potential in a couple of videos. The first clip shows how the device can be used to reduce the brightness of a virtual bulb, while the second shows its ability to serve as a wearable keyboard for dialling numbers on a virtual keyboard.

"By coding the angles between 0 and 180 degrees so that they corresponded to a typical hand movement when adjusting a lamp, we created a dimmer – and controlled it just with a hand movement over the permanent magnet," Denys Makarov, the study's co-author, explained while describing the first experiment.

As of now, VR devices only allow a person to manipulate objects in virtual reality. However, all these technologies are bulky and depend on a direct line of sight between the object and the person controlling it. With the novel e-skin, though, all of that changes.

The extraordinary tech is still being worked on but the researchers envision a variety of ways in which it can be used – one of which would be remote access to a control button or panel in a room which cannot be entered due to any kind of hazard. The group also hopes to replace the magnetic field of the permanent magnet with the Earth's geomagnetic field sometime in the future.

The work on this 'skin' has been detailed in a study published in the journal Science Advances.