A child whose parent is a continent away, an amputee who longs to feel a loved one’s hand, and a gamer who seeks tactile feedback for a more immersive experience. These three people represent just a few application categories for a recent Northwestern University development.

As reported in a study published in the journal Nature in November, Northwestern researchers Yonggang Huang and John A. Rogers developed an epidermal VR system that communicates touch. The wireless wearable employs a programmable array of vibrating actuators embedded in a soft, flexible material that conforms to human skin.

Rogers and Huang demonstrated the ability to adjust the frequency and amplitude of individual actuators on approximately 6-inch x 6-inch prototype epidermal patches. When a user presses or taps on a graphical interface on a mobile device touchscreen, the pattern of touch transmits wirelessly to the patch.

The lab versions of the Northwestern device embed 32 individually programmable actuators in a silicone polymer that sticks to the skin without adhesive, straps, or tape. Near-field communications (NFC) such as used for electronic payments enables wireless transmissions without battery power for the patch.

According to Rogers, the team plans to scale up from this starting point to full-body systems with possibly thousands of actuators.