In short: Researchers on behalf of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) have now demonstrated a proof of concept loudspeaker that can be attached to the skin and play music. In addition, the researchers have also showcased similar technology for a skin-attached microphone that not only can sense and transmit speech, but has the potential to activate and control AI-based voice assistants on smartphones and other devices.
Background: Similar loudspeaker and microphone technology has been demonstrated in academia in the past although as this new paper points out, in some instances those solutions have suffered by being too rigid for use as a skin-worn device, and when flexible enough have proven to be too vulnerable and not durable enough to be fit for purpose. In this case, the researchers were able to make use of a flexible enough build quality and mitigated against the delicate nature of the nanomembranes-based design by utilizing silver nanowire for additional strength. Resulting in what the researchers refer to as an "ultrathin, transparent, and conductive" solution.
Impact: Although the attention-grabbing aspect here is the ability for an individual's skin to play music, the study, published in the August edition of Science Advances, was conducted with a view to enhancing health care devices and especially in respect of the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) sector. For example, the technology could be used in wearable IoT sensors designed for those who suffer with hearing or speech-related difficulties. Especially considering the thickness of the sensors demonstrated are thin enough to be worn without becoming a physical hindrance, while also thanks to the use of the silver nanowire remaining durable enough for everyday usage. Likewise, the transparent nature of the sensors will add to the aesthetic appeal of the sensors, allowing individuals to wear them in a more discrete manner. It is this combination of being ultrathin, transparent, and still conductive which the researchers hailed as their big breakthrough. Of course, besides the medical and clinical benefits, there is also nothing stopping consumer-grade wearables from taking advantage of the technology in the future. In both cases, more research is expected based on the current findings.