Design Engineering

Autodesk Research tests “under-skin” interfaces

By Mike McLeod, Editor, Design Engineering   

CAD/CAM/CAE Autodesk Autodesk Research R&D Research

Excuse me, I have to answer my forearm: Implanted electronics designed to become the tech gadget that’s always with you.

Autodesk may not be hatching cyborgs as yet, but its Canadian R&D wing has taken the first step in that direction. At the Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) in Austen Texas this week, Autodesk Research presented its findings on the logistics and challenges of sub-dermal user interfaces — that is electronic input and feedback devices implanted beneath a user’s skin.

The CAD giant’s R&D department, housed in the company’s offices in downtown Toronto, is better known for its ground-breaking software interface research, including the contextual “marking menus” found in Maya and Inventor Fusion and the ViewCube model orientation UI element.

For this project, however, Autodesk Research looked at creating an interface that always stays with the user. As electronics like smart phones have become smaller, more portable and more multi-functional, users have become increasingly dependent on them as an extension of themselves. The logical continuation then would be to integrate them, or parts of their interface, into the user himself so they are available at all times.

Leveraging its long-standing partnership with the University of Toronto, Autodesk Research tested the feasibility of typical input and feedback devices when surgically implanted. In addition, the team’s research looked into the challenge of communication with external devices and keeping the implant powered.


For input, they tested a button, pressure sensor and tap sensor, as well as capacitive and brightness sensors, to detect hover above the skin and a microphone for sound input. For output, an LED light, vibration motor and speaker were tested along with an inductive charging mat for as a way to charge a battery and a Bluetooth chip for data transfer.

The team then implanted the devices into the forearm of a cadaver to see if they worked (e.g. LED light shined through skin; microphone recorded sound; bluetooth transmitted data, etc). In addition, test subjects were fitted with a prosthetic latex skin covering a series of input/output sensors on their forearms. They were then asked to perform a series of tasks in and around down town Toronto, while interacting with the “implanted” device.

According to the study, all the devices were functional, potentially paving the way to more elaborate devices in the future. However, the paper concludes that the long-term medical effects of implanted electronics, as well as the public perception of “proto-cyborgs” interacting with their implants, would need further study.


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