Wearable devices that collect health, diagnostic, and environmental information are becoming more popular for medical, personal, and professional use. However, the comfort of these devices is still a major issue, one which researchers continue to improve.

One such way is to create smaller, flexible devices that don’t interfere with a person’s every-day movements or clothing. Researchers at the University of Houston have now designed an ultra-thin electronic device they compare to wearing a Band-Aid because of its similar form factor and unobtrusive presence, they said.

wearable tech, flexible device, health, diagnostic, and environmental information, human-machine interface, HMI device

The human-machine interface (HMI) device—a small strip of material that can attach to the skin—also has potential for use as prosthetic skin for a robotic hand or other robotic devices, with a robust human-machine interface that allows it to automatically collect information and relay it back to the wearer, researchers said.

“Everything is very thin, just a few microns thick,” Cunjiang Yu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, said in a press statement. “You will not be able to feel it.”

Flexible and Versatile

Researchers used a combination of materials to design the device, which they reported in a paper published in Science Advances is “ultra-thin, mechanically imperceptible, and stretchable.”

They fabricated it in a one-step process using a metal oxide semiconductor—made specifically out of indium zinc oxide–on a nano-sized polymer base, researchers said. Fabrication can occur at temperatures lower than 300 degrees Celsius, researchers said.

“We report an … HMI device, which is worn on human skin to capture multiple physical data and also on a robot to offer intelligent feedback, forming a closed-loop HMI,” they wrote in the paper.

Indeed, the device has potential for myriad uses not just in wearable technology for humans, but also for robotic applications, to provide a sensor on the surface of a robot that might be able to sense environmental or health conditions, said Yu, who also is a principal investigator at the university’s Texas Center for Superconductivity,

“What if when you shook hands with a robotic hand, it was able to instantly deduce physical condition?” he said in a press statement, adding that the device could be used by either robots or humans to test the environment in situations such as chemical spills or to see if it poses a hazard.

In addition to the paper, the team also posted a video on YouTube showing how the device was designed and demonstrating it.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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