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Electronic-skin compasses for geomagnetic field-driven artificial magnetoreception and interactive electronics


Magnetoreception is the ability to detect and respond to magnetic fields that allows certain organisms to orientate themselves with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation purposes. The development of an artificial magnetoreception, which is based solely on an interaction with geomagnetic fields and can be used by humans, has, however, proved challenging. Here we report a compliant and mechanically robust electronic-skin compass system that allows a person to orient with respect to Earth’s magnetic field. The compass is fabricated on 6-μm-thick polymeric foils and accommodates magnetic field sensors based on the anisotropic magnetoresistance effect. The response of the sensor is tailored to be linear and, by arranging the sensors in a Wheatstone bridge configuration, a maximum sensitivity around the Earth’s magnetic field is achieved. Our approach can also be used to create interactive devices for virtual and augmented-reality applications, and we illustrate the potential of this by using our electronic-skin compass in the touchless control of virtual units in a game engine.

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The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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We acknowledge insightful discussions with T. Kosub and J. Ge (both of HZDR). We thank B. Scheumann, R. Kaltofen and J.I. Mönch (all of HZDR) for the deposition of metal layer stacks. Support by the Structural Characterization Facilities Rossendorf at the Ion Beam Center (IBC) at the HZDR is greatly appreciated. This work is financed in part via the European Research Council within the European Union´s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 306277 and German Research Foundation (DFG) Grant MA 5144/9-1.

Author information

G.S.C.B. designed and fabricated the sensors and conducted the experiments. G.S.C.B and D.M. analysed the data and prepared figures with contributions from all authors. H.F. wrote the scripts to interface the game engine with the acquired data. L.B. carried out structural characterization of the samples. G.S.C.B. and D.M. wrote the manuscript with comments from all authors. All co-authors edited the manuscript. D.M. and J.F. conceived the project.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Gilbert Santiago Cañón Bermúdez or Denys Makarov.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–10

  2. Supplementary Video 1

    The e-skin compass is mounted on a flat sample holder. Upon rotation of the holder, the detected output voltage on the computer screen reaches a minimum when the sensor axis (signalled by a black arrow) aligns with the geomagnetic field orientation. A nearby compass reference verifies the orientation of the magnetic north.

  3. Supplementary Video 2

    The e-skin compass is mounted on a motorized sample holder driven by a stepper motor, which rotates the compass counter-clockwise across the location of the magnetic north starting from three different initial positions. These starting positions are defined arbitrarily as having 0, 90 and –90° offsets with 0° indicating the case where the sensor axis (black arrow) points to the computer screen (about –108° with respect to magnetic north). The maxima in the signal readout, corresponding to the alignment of the sensor axis with the geomagnetic field, always arise at the same angular position irrespective of the initial offset. This indicates the absolute nature of the geomagnetic field orientation readout using the e-skin compass.

  4. Supplementary Video 3

    Analogously to Supplementary Video 2, the e-skin compass is rotated by a stepper motor. However, in this case, a biasing external magnetic field pointing to the right is generated with a Helmholtz coil (the strength of the field is 43 μT; orientation with respect to the magnetic north is 163 ± 1°). Due to this magnetic disturbance, the detected maxima change their angular positions and now happen at 72 ± 1° with respect to the magnetic north. From the magnitude of the measured signal and the angular location of the extrema it is possible to reconstruct the magnitude and orientation of the geomagnetic field by vector subtraction. Measuring with the coil OFF yields again the same magnitude and orientation as seen in Supplementary Video 2 and corroborates the reconstructed field (Supplementary Figure 5).

  5. Supplementary Video 4

    A person wears the e-skin compass on his finger and rotates about himself while pointing. The output data of the sensor is collected by a nearby computer and visualized as a trace and a virtual compass on screen. As the person points to magnetic north (south), the trace reaches its maximum (minimum) and the virtual compass shows north (south). Two cameras record the experiment simultaneously filming the computer screen and the full body motion of the person.

  6. Supplementary Video 5

    The e-skin compass is attached on the middle finger of a person. As the person moves his hand, the compass axis changes its relative orientation to the geomagnetic field. Thereby, a change in the output voltage is produced, which is related to the current hand position. The voltage signal is acquired by a computer, where a virtual panda is programmed to move forward at a constant speed. Particular hand positions are encoded to specific angular positions in the computer, instructing the virtual panda in which direction to move. Sequences of hand movements can control the motion of the panda at will and define trajectories within the virtual environment.

  7. Supplementary Video 6

    An AMR meander sensor is fixed on a mechanical stretcher, where it is bent from its flat state down to a curvature radius of 1 mm. The sensor resistance is continuously recorded during the bending process. An external magnet, attached to a rod, is placed in close vicinity of the sensor in such a way that the magnetic field is parallel to the plane of the sensor. Upon removal of the external magnetic stimulus, the resistance drops back to its baseline level.

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Fig. 1: Fabrication and mechanical performance of the e-skin compass.
Fig. 2: Magnetoelectric characterization of the e-skin compass.
Fig. 3: Outdoor geomagnetic detection.
Fig. 4: Geomagnetic interaction with a virtual reality environment.