Tactile tattoos to make virtual worlds tangible

Bild der Pressemitteilung

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Steimle from Saarland University is again funded by the European Research Council. Photo: Oliver Dietze

View all images

What seemed like science fiction until recently may soon become reality: making virtual worlds “tangible” in the truest sense of the word. Jürgen Steimle, a computer science professor at Saarland University, wants to achieve this by means of ultra-thin electronic foils that can be applied to the body like peel-off tattoos. In order to bring the technology, which he developed with his research group as part of the EU-funded “InteractiveSkin” project, closer to market maturity, Steimle is now again being supported by the European Research Council (ERC) with a so-called “Proof of Concept Grant”.

Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), often summarized as “extended reality (XR),” are increasingly moving out of the niche segment and into the mass market – think of the metaverse, gaming, or applications in industry and innovative areas of telemedicine. Most augmented reality applications have one thing in common: They address only or primarily the sense of sight. “The sense of touch is usually left out, even though it is a very crucial factor in how we experience our world,” explains computer science professor Jürgen Steimle, who heads the Saarland University research group on human-computer interaction at Saarland Informatics Campus. Meaningfully integrating the sense of touch into virtual worlds would contribute significantly to users experiencing them immersively, says the professor.

This is already possible to a certain extent: one wide-spread option are controllers held in the hands that generate vibrotactile feedback through moving parts such as motors, or gloves that also incorporate vibrating and otherwise moving elements. Professor Jürgen Steimle has set himself the task of developing better approaches here.

One result is the project “Tacttoo”: The name is a blend of “tactile”, i.e. relating to the sense of touch, and “tattoo” and thus concisely describes what was developed in the project: A super-thin electronic foil, only 35 micrometers (= thousandths of a millimeter) thick, that can be applied to the skin like a peel-off tattoo, where it can stimulate the sense of touch only through electrical impulses, without any moving parts at all. Because the foil is feel-through thin, objects can still be perceived and felt as before. This opens up new application possibilities: As with other methods, Tacttoo can be used to create completely new haptic experiences for purely digital objects (albeit much more realistically thanks to higher resolution), but in addition, real objects can be enhanced with other sensory impressions.

For example, the technology could be used in product design: Augmented reality and a physical prototype could be used to try out the haptics of different materials before going into production. Or in the case of designing an electrical device, different positioning of buttons and other physical controls could be tested by simulating them as artificial haptic sensations. The technology could also be used to train surgeons, for example. Virtual reality environments are already being used here. Steimle’s method could be applied to add realistic haptic feedback to these environments without restricting the fine motor skills required by the medical trainees.

In the project now funded by the European Research Council, called “Feel-XR: Feel-through Haptic Feedback for Augmented and Virtual Reality,” Steimle and his team are focusing on technology transfer and work on identifying new use cases and refining existing ones: “Through market analyses, development of applications, and collaboration with partners from industry, we want to explore the commercial potential of the technology in order to bring Tacttoo into practice,” says the professor. The European Union has designated so-called Proof of Concept Grants specifically for this purpose, which are only awarded to scientists who have already received a higher level of EU funding and have developed basic technologies with high application potential in the process. The funding volume of such a grant is 150,000 euros over 18 months.



More information:


Questions can be directed at:
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Steimle
Human Computer Interaction Lab
Saarland University
Saarland Informatics Campus
Phone: +49 (0)681 302 71080
Mail: Steimle@cs.uni-saarland.de


Background Saarland Informatics Campus:
900 scientists (including 400 PhD students) and about 2500 students from more than 80 nations make the Saarland Informatics Campus (SIC) one of the leading locations for computer science in Germany and Europe. Four world-renowned research institutes, namely the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, the Center for Bioinformatics as well as Saarland University with three departments and 24 degree programs cover the entire spectrum of computer science.


Philipp Zapf-Schramm
Saarland Informatics Campus
Phone: +49 681 302-70741
E-Mail: pzapf@cs.uni-saarland.de

Press photos for download for use free of charge in connection with this press release:

blank Prof. Dr. Jürgen Steimle from Saarland University is again funded by the European Research Council. Photo: Oliver Dietze
blank Foil applied to the fingertip, where it can stimulate the sense of touch through electrical impulses.
blank The film is so thin that objects and surfaces can be perceived through it almost unchanged.