Exoskin: The Pneumatically Powered Changing Skin

Interesting Engineering

Exoskin is one of the world's leading programmable material that gives life to inert materials in everyday objects. Exoskin is a cutting edge technology set to bring human and environmental interaction to new heights by providing a movable and intractable composite device to sense, react, and bring in a whole new level of customizability to concurrent technology.

There was a time when a separate device was needed to check the time, make a call, listen to the radio, and look up a destination. Technological advancements have combined the best of everyday technologies into one complete device, one that billions of people share, connect, and interact with around the world, everyday – that significant device being a handheld computer or cell phone. Technology is headed down the path of human interaction and bringing together a set of features into one device. Exoskin is set to take interaction and custimizability to a whole new level with a new material that can bend, react, and completely change its shape.


The Exoskin is a pneumatically elastic material that changes interfaces based on sensory input or a programmed action which is then actuated by compressed air through a series of tubes that create a changing interface, customizable through programming or sensory input. The device uses pneumatic inflation to change the shape of an object which is determined through a programmed input.

Basheer Tome B.S. of Georgia Institute of Technology submitted a paper in 2013 examining the potential of a new programmable material he developed. His initiative is to change the way humans interact with inanimate, static objects.

“Programmable materials have the power to bring to life inert materials in the world around us. Exoskin, provides a way to embed a multitude of static, rigid materials into actuatable, elastic membranes, allowing the new semi-rigid composites to sense, react, and compute”

Says Basheer.

The first device that Basheer integrated his programmable material into was one used every day that has not seen a drastic change since its invention – that being a steering wheel. The Exoskin was fitted onto a steering wheel and was outfitted with tactile feedback, able to give the driver information such as during GPS navigation where information is relayed to the driver through small pulsating ripples signaling the direction of an upcoming turn. The oscillation of the ripples is increased to communicate the proximity of the turn.

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The Exowheel is also said to feature a “dynamic ergonomic grip”, able to sense pressure points with capacitive pads that detect hand placement which then automatically adjusts the surface for comfort and grip. The Exowheel can also change shapes during a turn to relay information to correct a turn and perform a safer maneuver.

Exoskin could see a reemergence among robotics to give robots a "soft touch", allowing a greater degree of use in areas that require extreme precision. Scientists at Harvard are already working on soft pneumatic devices to create precision and gentile orientated robots that are able to squeeze into small areas and bend into small crevasse. The technology could assist in search and rescue operatives.

soft robotSoft robot, able to squeeze under an area 3/4 of an inch [Image Source: Harvard/George Whitesides]

The technology is still in early development and experimentation where the team who designed the Exoskin will continue to explore other places where a texture changing, bi-directional surface could be beneficial. Although the device is currently used on a steering wheel, it could one day be used as a propulsion mechanism to "snake" its way through small crevasses and search for people buried in rubble.

The technology could also see useful application in mobile phones to create a customisation case able to conform to a hand, as well as furniture that can mold around the shape of a body. As the technology advances in the soft robotics sector, its potential could see it used in anything from robotics to a steering wheel, and everything you can imaging in between. Customizable, changeable surfaces could become a major part of the future which could see humans interact with the world in a whole new way.