We’re all too happy to scroll aimlessly on our phones for hours on end, but have you ever once stopped to think and ask that little device in your hands whether it feels held?
Of course not. Because it’s a soulless commercial product.
Though that fact didn’t deter Marc Teyssier at Telecom Paris in France and his colleagues from developing these seriously disturbing phone cases that mimic the squishy haptics of human skin. It’s a concept I’m positive the folks at Netflix are already planning to steal for their next Black Mirror episode: Slap one of these flesh slabs onto your device and it’ll be able to detect and respond to every stroke, poke, and tickle like skin would for several potential applications that are not kinky (and I assume many, many more that are).
It’s called a Skin-On Interface (since the name “beefy pinchy skin chunk” undoubtedly triggered several legal red flags)—artificial skin that’s been programmed to understand gestural and touch inputs in addition to particular emotions these interactions are tied to. A light tap lets your phone know you want its attention, clenching it in a tight grip reads as anger, while stroking it can register as comfort and certainly nothing else even remotely salacious.
Nah, I’m just playing. One of the potential uses listed in the proof of concept video for Skin-On above is “tactile communication with a virtual avatar.” If this project does succeed in moving beyond the prototype stage, you know it’s going to have some NSFW-as-fuck applications.
The interface looks as unsettling squishy as you’d expect, which makes sense considering the concept first came from a desire to pinch his phone, Teyssier told the New Scientist. If that strikes you as a bizarre urge for someone to have, for reference this is the same guy who helped make a robotic finger for his phone, so he has a bit of a reputation of getting handsy with tech. It’s a unique concept that’s even crept into his Ph.D. work, as he explained in an email to Gizmodo:
“I explore touch in human-computer interaction. When we are talking to someone face-to-face, we sometimes use touch to convey affect, emotions and more generally enrich the discourse. Now that mediated communication is performed through the devices, we [have] lost the sense of touch communication modality.”
Artificially replicating even the simplest of human touches is far from easy, though. All the software and hardware for the team’s main prototypes took three months to build, and nailing down a material for the artificial skin itself proved a particularly tricky process.
“The constraint was to develop something that was stretchable and that can also detect touch,” Teyssier told the New Scientist.
According to the team’s video, the prototypes come in two different versions: a simple, single-toned option and an ultrarealistic option for the discerning fake flesh connoisseur. And just like human skin, it’s made up of multiple layers: pliable copper wire between an epidermis and hypodermis of silicon molded to resemble the texture of skin. The team also covered a laptop touchpad and smartwatch with Skin-On Interfaces to demonstrate its potential uses beyond just phones.
The next step for these abominations is the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in New Orleans, where the team of Telecom Paris, HCI Sorbonne University, and the French National Center for Scientific Research researchers will present their work. Teyssier told Gizmodo he didn’t start this project with any particular future application in mind for the prototypes, but rather “to propose a possible future with anthropomorphic devices.”
Wouldn’t it be an act of cosmic ironic glory if these phone cases were the solution to Samsung’s recent Galaxy S10 and Note 10 troubles? So far the company’s s official statement blames phone covers for why their devices can be unlocked by any fingerprint, but—now, hear me out Samsung—has anyone tested to see if the bug works on faux-flesh?
Updated: We added in Teyssier’s comments.