Fake Skin Could Make the Metaverse Feel Real

Touch in virtual reality

Key Takeaways

  • Artificial skin could add a sense of touch to virtual reality. 
  • The skin is cheap to make and could be used for anything from robot hands to tactile gloves. 
  • Many companies are trying to develop new ways to feel or smell virtual worlds.
Someone using virtual reality with an outer space overlay.

Artur Debat / Getty Images

Virtual reality (VR) could feel more like real life thanks to a new kind of artificial skin. 

The skin uses a rubbery plastic less than 3 millimeters thick that's studded with magnetic particles. The innovation uses artificial intelligence to calibrate the sense of touch. It's part of a growing number of innovations designed to enhance virtual environments. 

"VR is the first embodied digital format, which means that the whole body is engaged into believing that the immersive experience is real," Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO of virtual reality company Virtuleap, told Lifewire in an email interview. "One of the key features is that as an order of magnitude, more data is being captured about the human experience."

Super Skin?

The artificial skin, called ReSkin, was designed by Meta (formerly known as Facebook) and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. The hope is that the skin could add depth to the evolving experience of the metaverse, a type of digital space that lets you do things you can't in the physical world. 

The scientists claim that ReSkin is inexpensive to produce, costing less than $6 each at 100 units, and even less at larger quantities. It could be used for anything from robot hands to tactile gloves. 

ReSkin has magnetic particles inside that produce a magnetic field. When the skin touches another surface, it changes the magnetic field. The sensor records the change in magnetic flux before feeding the data to AI software, which interprets the force or touch applied.

"This brings us one step closer to realistic virtual objects and physical interactions in the metaverse," Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook

Virtual Feeling

Meta isn't the only company trying to develop new ways to feel or smell the virtual world. 

Sensory input is helpful to users of VR because "it gives a more amplified cognitive interaction to digital experiences," Sammir Belkhyat, the CEO of VR company Vnntr Cybernetics, told Lifewire. 

One company using scent in VR is OVR Technology, which incorporates smell into virtual reality and climate change awareness experiences. It uses the aromas of sandy beaches, smoke, and fire to make you feel like traveling. 

Another startup in the VR smell space is Vaqso, based out of Japan. The company makes a cartridge-like device that's attached to a VR headset an can switch through multiple scents, based on what is happening in the experience. 

The US-based startup VRgluv also uses haptic technology to mimic actual objects' size, shape, and stiffness when you feel them. It offers gloves that can be paired with VR goggles. 

An example of how a machine can "feel" a blueberry with and without artificial skin.
An example of how a machine can "feel" a blueberry with and without artificial skin.


"Concepts like scent or smell control can be used to tell a story. Similar to how essential oils are used to enhance relaxation, or cologne or perfume used to showcase a lifestyle or sensual encounter," Belkhyat said. "Eventually, as time goes on, there will be new types of sensory inputs that are not available today. Virtual sensations from the future might be more satisfying and complex."

For VR in healthcare or training, having proper sensory cues can differentiate between an exciting experience and one that works. For instance, physical therapists can use AR/VR to help people learn/relearn neuromuscular skills, tech expert and IEEE member Carmen Fontana told Lifewire. This is because sensory input strengthens neural associations formed during practiced tasks. "Ideally, these neural associations developed during virtual therapy will eventually translate to physical skills in the real world," Fontana added.

Sensory input like artificial skin might turn VR into a better way to communicate, emerging technology expert and IEEE member Todd Richmond told Lifewire. 

"Since VR is a relatively new medium, we don't yet know how to effectively tell stories in VR," Richmond said. "You can't just shove content made for a 2D screen into a 3D world, for example—similar to how taking radio plays and putting them in front of a camera in the early days of TV didn't really work."

Was this page helpful?