Cyborgs have long been a staple of sci-fi, but we see few real-world examples of this concept outside of a handful of biomedical devices and prostheses. But bionics — engineered systems that integrate biological structures — is an adjacent field with interesting possibilities. A bionic device would include some biological material (often tissue) with artificial components (often electronics). In the burgeoning field of bionics, Saarland University Human-Computer Interaction Lab’s Biohybrid Interactive Devices look promising.
The goal of this research was to a develop viable and practical HCI devices. The approach taken by the researchers was to embed traditional electronics in bacterial cellulose. Comparable to animal tissue, bacterial cellulose is a growable biomaterial. It is flexible and retains structural integrity, which makes it suitable for many applications. To embed electronics in the bacterial cellulose, the team had to create growth and stabilization techniques that enable the biomaterial to remain stable for a useful amount of time.
A couple of different prototype devices demonstrate this. One is a shoulder-worn accessory that conveys the user’s emotions visually. An embedded galvanic skin response (GSR) sensor lets an Arduino Leonardo detect user anxiety or stress. When it does, it passes current through shape memory alloy that causes bacterial cellulose flaps to rise noticeably. Another is a gamepad with an embedded multi-touch matrix and capacitive touch buttons, which connect to a computer through an Arduino Nano.
Both of these prototypes were successful, but the bacterial cellulose did still experience degradation caused by the presence of the electronic components and the heat they generate. Further research may allow for more stability. You can read more about Biohybrid Interactive Devices in the team’s paper here.