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Sensors Designed for Prosthetic Hands Could Lead to New Textile Standards

Haptic sensors might help figure out if thread count really matters

An illustration of a prosthetic hand. (ANDRZEJ WOJCICKI/Science Photo Library/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

For years, roboticists and prosthetists have dreamed of a day when mechanical limbs could restore both function and sense of touch for a person missing a limb. However, in developing a sensor that might one day help prosthetic fingers feel, a group of engineers may have stumbled on another application: an objective standard for describing and judging fabrics and textiles.

It’s easy for clothing designers to tell a textile manufacturer what color they want a new dress to be and the exact measurements for a new line of coats. But picking the right fabric is a different problem because it’s almost completely subjective.

For every piece of clothing you can find on store shelves, it’s likely that several people spent hours passing fabric samples back and forth to pick the one that feels just right. While some groups like the International Organization for Standardization have tried to develop textile standards, none have have taken hold of the textile industry. Matt Borzage, co-founder of the robotics firm SynTouch tells Klint Finley for Wired.

“[M]ost companies revert to shipping physical samples to customers or flying their in-house experts from factory to factory instead of communicating using their standard measurements,” Borzage tells Finley.

Engineers at SynTouch have been working for years to develop a sensor that can communicate a full range of touch to a person wearing a prosthetic. While there have been recent advances in making prosthetic limbs with some sense of feeling, even the most sophisticated sensors can only detect pressure, not temperature or texture, Erin Blakemore writes for Smithsonian.com. But when you touch a piece of clothing, you’re not just feeling the fabric, you’re feeling how it’s reacting to your own body.

Finley writes:

When you touch something, you are doing more than sensing the surface of that object. You’re also changing it, however subtly. Your finger emits heat, and no matter how gentle you are, you exert an almost imperceptible amount of pressure. In other words, you aren’t just feeling the material, you’re feeling its reaction to your touch.

With this in mind, SynTouch has built it’s BioTac sensor to emulate this reaction by producing heat and pressure on its own, just like a real finger would. But in order to teach the sensor how to process this information, its engineers have developed the “SynTouch Standard”—a comprehensive collection of 500 different materials classified based on 15 different factors, which includes friction and smoothness, Sarah Fecht writes for Popular Science.

By categorizing these materials to teach the robots differences in texture, SynTouch has almost accidentally created a texture standard for manufactures. Companies could use these standards to more easily judge fabrics that are used for everything from the newest runway styles to car seat covers.

SynTouch still has a ways to go before its sensors will be ready for market, but the company has surely stumbled on an intriguing side business.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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