Books that feel? Tactile feedback and prosthetic skin

As someone who’s been studying animal skin rather intensively over the last few years (for a thought book on the natural and cultural history of parchment; see here and here for related essays), I’m intrigued by some new haptic technology that seems to be as sensitive as human skin. Through an amazing combination of nanoelectrics, heightened sensor density, and increased spatial resolution, scientists at Georgia Tech (led by materials engineer Zhong Lin Wang) have been developing a synthetic membrane that acts almost like mammalian skin, with all kinds of potential applications in medicine, computer technology, and other domains. The paper announcing the development, pithily titled “Taxel-Addressable Matrix of Vertical-Nanowire Piezotronic Transistors for Active/Adaptive Tactile Imaging” and appearing in a recent issue of Science, is summarized in a recent piece over at SingularityHub (h/t to Burnable Books follower Sorou Houngbo for the link):

Wang thinks the array could eventually be used to enable prosthetics to transmit a realistic sense of touch. They also think it could be used to improve touchscreen devices, give robots a finer touch for handling objects, or could be placed under the skin of burn victims. By connecting to intact nerves beneath the damaged skin, the sensor could replace actual skin and return sensation to the burn victim. With the many needs to sense our environment, possible applications for the artificial skin are endless.

Source: Georgia Tech, courtesy singularityhub.com

The technology obviously has extraordinary potential for treating burn victims, and I don’t mean to trivialize these applications. But as someone obsessed with historical interests in the intimate relation of skin to page, I can’t help thinking about the implications of virtual skin for the study of book history. The technology is sparking all kinds of Helen Marshall-like neo-Gothic images in my mind of sensing parchment and feeling books–though without the inconvenient need for human or animal skin as the interface.

What would it look like to trace, compute, and visualize the felt effects of writing on the surface of a page? More practically or empirically, could the physical inscription of a Latin Bible on synthetic skin somehow be quantified to measure the amount of energy and effort it took a medieval scribe (or a collective of scribes) to write such a massive volume over many months or years? And could this then be compared to the quantity of energy expended in typing a work of equal length on a MacBook? Would this give us a more intimately biological account of the transition from manuscript to print, or allow us to appreciate in new ways what it meant–physiologically, kinetically, biochemically, etc.–to write in a scribal culture?

Idle speculations on a rainy day…

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