Sensors Take a Big Step Closer to Human Touch

Posted on October 28, 2013


NEW YORK (Techonomy) — A smartphone screen can detect where it’s being touched. But the SynTouch sensor works the other way around: It detects what it is touching.

SynTouch LLC, a Los Angeles-based startup that began in a University of Southern California lab, has developed what it says is the first sensor that enables robots to replicate human touch. The company has been named a 2014 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer for its main product, the BioTac, a fingertip that can sense force, temperature, and vibration—in some cases more accurately than a human finger.

While many sensors have been developed over the last 30 years, not many products with human-like capabilities have resulted, says Jeremy Fishel, SynTouch’s co-founder. “The approaches people were taking just weren’t similar to how the finger works, and were therefore doomed to fail,” he says.

The Syntouch BioTac robotic finger makes a friend.

The Syntouch BioTac robotic finger makes a friend.

The BioTac is a robotic finger with sensors in a rigid skeleton, surrounded by a fluid-filled, squishy skin. It has fingerprints, nails, and the shape of a finger, which help the sensor accurately detect vibrations, shapes, and textures.

“Through kind of blindly copying nature we figure out why it’s useful to do that in the first place,” Fishel says. And a soft, moldable, human-finger-like touch sensor has implications across industries, he adds.

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