How sensitive is the human sense of touch? Sensitive enough to feel the difference between surfaces that differ by just a single layer of molecules, a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego has shown.

"This is the greatest tactile sensitivity that has ever been shown in humans," said Darren Lipomi, a professor of nanoengineering and member of the Center for Wearable Sensors at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the interdisciplinary project with V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology at UC San Diego.

Humans can easily feel the difference between many everyday surfaces such as glass, metal, wood and plastic. That's because these surfaces have different textures or draw heat away from the finger at different rates. But UC San Diego researchers wondered, if they kept all these large-scale effects equal and changed only the topmost layer of molecules, could humans still detect the difference using their sense of touch? And if so, how?

Researchers say this fundamental knowledge will be useful for developing electronic skin, prosthetics that can feel, advanced haptic technology for virtual and augmented reality and more.

Unsophisticated haptic technologies exist in the form of rumble packs in video game controllers or smartphones that shake, Lipomi added. "But reproducing realistic tactile sensations is difficult because we don't yet fully understand the basic ways in which materials interact with the sense of touch."

"Today's technologies allow us to see and hear what's happening, but we can't feel it," said Cody Carpenter, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and co-first author of the study. "We have state-of-the-art speakers, phones and high-resolution screens that are visually and aurally engaging, but what's missing is the sense of touch. Adding that ingredient is a driving force behind this work."

This study is the first to combine materials science and psychophysics to understand how humans perceive touch. "Receptors processing sensations from our skin are phylogenetically the most ancient, but far from being primitive they have had time to evolve extraordinarily subtle strategies for discerning surfaces—whether a lover's caress or a tickle or the raw tactile feel of metal, wood, paper, etc. This study is one of the first to demonstrate the range of sophistication and exquisite sensitivity of tactile sensations. It paves the way, perhaps, for a whole new approach to tactile psychophysics," Ramachandran said.

Super-sensitive touch
In a paper published in Materials Horizons, UC San Diego researchers tested whether human subjects could distinguish—by dragging or tapping a finger across the surface—between smooth silicon wafers that differed only in their single topmost layer of molecules. One surface was a single oxidized layer made mostly of oxygen atoms. The other was a single Teflon-like layer made of fluorine and carbon atoms. Both surfaces looked identical and felt similar enough that some subjects could not differentiate between them at all.

According to the researchers, human subjects can feel these differences because of a phenomenon known as stick-slip friction, which is the jerking motion that occurs when two objects at rest start to slide against each other. This phenomenon is responsible for the musical notes played by running a wet finger along the rim of a wine glass, the sound of a squeaky door hinge or the noise of a stopping train. In this case, each surface has a different stick-slip frequency due to the identity of the molecules in the topmost layer.

In one test, 15 subjects were tasked with feeling three surfaces and identifying the one surface that differed from the other two. Subjects correctly identified the differences 71 percent of the time.

In another test, subjects were given three different strips of silicon wafer, each strip containing a different sequence of 8 patches of oxidized and Teflon-like surfaces. Each sequence represented an 8-digit string of 0s and 1s, which encoded for a particular letter in the ASCII alphabet. Subjects were asked to "read" these sequences by dragging a finger from one end of the strip to the other and noting which patches in the sequence were the oxidized surfaces and which were the Teflon-like surfaces. In this experiment, 10 out of 11 subjects decoded the bits needed to spell the word "Lab" (with the correct upper and lowercase letters) more than 50 percent of the time. Subjects spent an average of 4.5 minutes to decode each letter.

"A human may be slower than a nanobit per second in terms of reading digital information, but this experiment shows a potentially neat way to do chemical communications using our sense of touch instead of sight," Lipomi said.

Basic model of touch
The researchers also found that these surfaces can be differentiated depending on how fast the finger drags and how much force it applies across the surface. The researchers modeled the touch experiments using a "mock finger," a finger-like device made of an organic polymer that's connected by a spring to a force sensor. The mock finger was dragged across the different surfaces using multiple combinations of force and swiping velocity. The researchers plotted the data and found that the surfaces could be distinguished given certain combinations of velocity and force. Meanwhile, other combinations made the surfaces indistinguishable from each other.

"Our results reveal a remarkable human ability to quickly home in on the right combinations of forces and swiping velocities required to feel the difference between these surfaces. They don't need to reconstruct an entire matrix of data points one by one as we did in our experiments," Lipomi said.

"It's also interesting that the mock finger device, which doesn't have anything resembling the hundreds of nerves in our skin, has just one force sensor and is still able to get the information needed to feel the difference in these surfaces. This tells us it's not just the mechanoreceptors in the skin, but receptors in the ligaments, knuckles, wrist, elbow and shoulder that could be enabling humans to sense minute differences using touch," he added.