Bionic Gloves: Wondrous Abilities In The Palm Of Your Hands

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The idea of bionic gloves typically conjures up images that are more or less related to recreating the sense of touch. Or at least, it can be associated with any design that can provide significant augmentation to the otherwise unaided primary human dexterity tool.

But bionic gloves, at least according to Google, are actually the hottest brand of support gloves, designed to further optimize any activity you plan to do. Whether it’s carrying equipment, using tools, playing sports, or anything that demands a fair amount of “repetitive dexterity.”

Which is… actually pretty close to the initial idea mentioned earlier. But is that all? Perhaps we should backtrack a bit and compare other bionic concepts that could be closely related to gloves or glove-like enhancements.

Electronic Skin: The Default Bionic Glove?

When it comes to replicating the sense of touch or providing added function to the human hand, the idea of electronic skin usually comes to mind first. E-skin, as it is commonly known, is a blanket term for a number of technologies that aim to pad additional layers of various thin-form electronic devices onto the human skin.

While the concept is generally applicable to any skin-covered part of the human body, the focus is almost always on the user’s hands. After all, the hands are the most articulate skin-covered part of the body that can perform various tasks demanding high levels of dexterity, and therefore would theoretically benefit the most from a surface-level augmentation.

For example, scientists at the Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois developed an e-skin prototype last year that was originally designed for health-monitoring applications. The idea is that you would slap a small piece of flexible, cloth-like material at the base of the throat, allowing real-time monitoring of the user’s breathing, heart rate, general pulse, and even how they talk.

Another independent team at Stanford University in California improved upon the facet of flexibility, comfort, and properties that would allow the device to combine seamlessly with human skin. This was even developed further into a new elastic material that allows the detection of tiny changes in pressure, sending the information as a sort of fake sense of touch.

When we think of bionic gloves that can combine these features, a general idea of a discreetly thin smart device that augments or restores users’ ability to sense their surroundings becomes the default thought. We can combine health monitoring plus additional sensing information, for example, on specialized gloves in space, where every bit of physiological change could mean life or death for the individual.

Even more impressive is when we combine all these features with the high level of control found in the human hand. You might be able to change modes through certain finger gestures or let an AI automatically detect your hand’s intended movements. Better yet, the environment could be analyzed early to provide an assessment of what the hand should and shouldn’t do.

Bionic Limb Sensory Feedback: The Built-in Bionic Glove?

Naturally, since we are going into the positive points of thin, potentially skin-tight sensor technologies for hands, we can also include our previous introduction and discussion about various sensory technologies dealing with the restoration of either touch or haptic feedback on bionic limbs.

Unlike electronic skin, there is a much bigger emphasis on what we could technically consider information reinforcement. As we mentioned before, the difficulty in using an artificial prosthetic is not just in the mechanism of its movement or the level of intuitiveness of its controls. It is simply difficult to perfectly maneuver arms that rely solely on your eyesight to gauge movement.

Think about it. When you are holding a cup, not only can you hold it with your hands and fingers, but you can also actively determine the grip force simply by feeling around the object. Even if we are wearing gloves, the force acted upon the object being held alone is usually enough for us to deftly position it in any way that we want. Sometimes, even without looking at the object whatsoever.

If we apply such a function to a bionic limb by adding a sensor layer onto the entire hand, wouldn’t it be considered a type of bionic glove already? Alternatively, any enveloping layer of sensors that add haptic feedback to the endpoints of the bionic arm can also be considered to be bionic gloves. In such a definition, we can once again look back at the research done at the John Hopkins University, which resulted in the development of a thin sensor matrix functioning as nerve endings embedded in a material made of rubber and fabric. It even has a name comparable to the aforementioned electronic skin: the E-Dermis.

Of course, since it only enhances the level of usage of a robotic arm, there may be ultimate limitations to what we could actually consider under this classification. Usually, we can only consider such bionic gloves if the artificial arm or hand is built to resemble the function of an original human hand.

Commercial Smart Gloves: Maybe the True Bionic Glove All Along

man wearing Bionic Gloves
Image credit by UCA / John White et al via Flickr

Finally, we can discuss what Google had originally intended for us to see. Bionic Gloves is actually a trademarked product line of gloves intended to provide a more technologically integrated enhancement of the user’s grip. No, unfortunately, it is not really marketed as a smart device. Rather, it is introduced as a composite covering built to protect the hand from the elements, while preserving the level of feel, form, and dexterity that a typical bare set of hands is better capable of doing.

For example, specific points of articulation, such as the spaces between the fingers, are highly protected with strategically placed pads. The glove also twists, contorts, and bends around perfectly in the direction and orientation where the bones, tendons, and muscles are supposed to naturally move. The official product page introduces each feature and compares it to whatever optimization it is supposed to provide for the natural operation of your palm and fingers.

Actually, when described in such a manner, it does represent what the ideal bionic glove should have always been: a step up from what your bare hands could do. Just like how bionic eyes could have the potential to enhance the eyesight of those with normal vision, Bionic Gloves (the product) might be the direct analog in terms of enhancing the normal hand.

Why haven’t we seen this concept proliferate to other areas of bionic limb academic research and commercial product development? Well, aside from concept ownership reasons, the conscious thought of bionic gloves as an element of advanced prosthetics just seems somewhat unnecessary. This is in part due to the well-known limitation of putting touch and pressure sensors on bionic hands.

But more importantly, these aren’t really hands anymore. They’re mechatronic appendages designed to resemble the human hand and fingers. We can’t enhance them the same way as normal human hands.

The Intellectual and Commercial Dead End

And so, we reach a conclusion, that all other concepts that may resemble bionic gloves can’t really be classified as them after all. The devil is in the details and technicality. Aesthetic elements aside, gloves are meant to enhance appendages, in this case, the human hand. They work well when used with natural hands because the enhancing features (such as skin protection or pressure resistance) are yet to be provided and cannot be created on their own.

If we are designing bionic gloves for artificial hands and fingers, why not just integrate the technology itself into the mechatronic components? There is a reason why the allusion is always termed in the context of natural skin, or any skin-like body part, instead of referring to it like a glove.

And well… also because some fitness company has already trademarked the very name for its own commercial benefit.

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