The audacious science pushing the boundaries of human touch

It's the first sensation we feel, our most primal connection to others. Can implants and electrical signaling replicate the experience of touch? Research teams are exploring the possibilities—with startling results.

This translucent fabric acts as the skin of an experimental camera-computer combo that “feels” the touch of hands in a novel way—by converting their shadows into information. The Cornell University scientists who developed the mechanism, called Shadow Sense, are trying it out inside a soft, touch-reactive robot.
Lynn Johnson

One afternoon in September 2018, six years after the work accident that destroyed his left forearm and hand in an industrial conveyor belt, a North Carolina man named Brandon Prestwood stood in front of his wife with an expression on his face that was so complicated, so suffused with nervous anticipation, that he looked torn between laughter and tears. In the little group gathered around the Prestwoods, someone held up a cell phone to record the curious tableau: the pretty woman with long hair and glasses, the bearded guy with a white elbow-to-fingertips prosthetic, and the wiring running from a tabletop electrical device up under the guy’s shirt and into his shoulder. 

Right through the skin, that is, so that Prestwood—his body, not his prosthetic—was, for the moment, literally plugged in. As part of an audacious set of experiments by an international network of neurologists, physicians, psychologists, and biomedical engineers, Prestwood had let surgeons at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University slice into the end of his left arm and affix tiny electrical conductors to the truncated nerves and muscles. The surgeons then guided four dozen thread-thin wires up inside his half arm and out his shoulder. Afterward, whenever he peeled off the patch that covered them, Prestwood could see the wire leads poking out of his skin.

Welp, yep, they’re wires, Prestwood would say to himself. Coming out of my arm.

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