Soft Wormbot Tries Out New Light-Up Skin

Octopus-inspired skin could lead to better sensors, fashion

A proof of concept to show how flexible a new light-emitting material is
A proof of concept to show how flexible a new light-emitting material isImage via Highly stretchable electroluminescent skin for optical signaling and tactile sensing

Cephalopods have some pretty incredible biological adaptations that mere mortals can only hope to emulate. One of those is the ability to see with their skin, no eyes necessary. So scientists are using this natural design to help develop new flexible smart sensors known as hyperelastic light-emitting capacitors (or HLECs).

In a paper published in the journal Science this week, researchers from Cornell University and Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia describe a new electroluminescent material that is as stretchable as an undulating octopus, while still emitting light in response to its environment.

The thin rubber sheets can stay illuminated as they stretch to be more than six times larger than their original size, which means the new material can handle more than twice the strain of previous materials.

The study tested the light-emitting material in three different cases. The most intriguing, perhaps, is when they researchers integrated HLECs into a soft robotic worm. Three chambers were pressurized to simulate the way a worm might inch along. As each of the three sections of the worm is pressurized, it increases the electric field, letting the HLEC panels sense the change in its environment and change the light it emits. You can see it in action in the video below:

"When robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have emotional connection with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions," Cornell professor and study author Rob Shepherd said in a press release. Another potential application could be in wearable electronics that are actually comfortable and can provide personalized alerts by changing color.