How Sensitive Is Human Touch? New Research Suggests Our Fingers Can Detect Nano-Wrinkles On Near-Smooth Surfaces

By Philip Ross on September 17, 2013 3:38 PM EDT

human touch
Humans can detect textures on a nanometer scale, according to researchers from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Just how sensitive is human touch? Researchers from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden tested the depth of human tactile perception to get a feeling for how advanced human touch really is. They found that human fingers can identify textures whose ridges are mere nanometers in size. It's the first time this kind of data has been quantified, and the results are pretty extraordinary.

"This means that, if your finger was the size of the Earth, you could feel the difference between houses from cars," Mark Rutland, Professor of Surface Chemistry at the institute and one of the authors of the new study on human touch, said in a press release. "That is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this research. We discovered that a human being can feel a bump corresponding to the size of a very large molecule."

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It has been established that the smallest feature a person can feel through static touch is no smaller than .2mm, or about twice the diameter of a human eyelash. But Rutland and his team found that when someone drags their finger along a surface, called dynamic touch, they can sense differences in surface texture much, much smaller than that.

To test how sensitive human touch really is, researchers at the institute in Sweden manufactured a series of surfaces with very small wrinkles on them. Some of the wrinkles measured micrometers in wavelength; others, mere nanometers.

They then had a group of 20 people with blindfolds on feel the surfaces and see if they could sense a difference in them. They were told to rub each surface, perpendicular to the creases, for about five seconds each. What they found the smallest wrinkles people could feel was just 13 nanometers in size.

The study authors say their research could have implications for touchscreen technology, especially for people with visual impairments. The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, notes that plastic screen surfaces could be manufactured to feel like other materials like fabric or wood. Science World Report notes that the study could have implications for new developments in robotics and virtual reality.

If you'd like to see the conclusions of the study for yourself, you can read the entire report here.

Read more from iScience Times:

Disney Listening Device Turns Fingertip Into Human Microphone: How Does 'Ishin-Den-Shin' Work?

Stem Cell Discovery: New Research Could Help Humans Regrow Fingers [STUDY]

Robotic Fingertip Outperforms Humans In Feeling Textures

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