Artificial skin that can sense touch - allowing the wearer to 'hold hands' with a loved one on the other side of the world or feel a pat on the back from a teammate in the online game Fortnite - has been developed by scientists.
Described as an 'epidermal VR' system, the artificial skin consists of a six-inch-square sheet of thin, soft, flexible material, embedded with 32 tiny vibrating actuators.
The frequency and amplitude of each actuator can be adjusted independently to generate a discrete sense of touch at corresponding locations on the skin.
The artificial skin can comfortably stick to the curved surfaces of the skin without bulky batteries and cumbersome wires, according to Northwestern University researchers.
As well as adding new dimensions to long-distance relationships and entertainment, the technology could also provide prosthetics with sensory feedback and impart telemedicine with a 'human touch'.
The artificial skin consists of a six-inch-square sheet of thin, soft, flexible material, embedded with 32 tiny vibrating actuators
'We are expanding the boundaries and capabilities of virtual and augmented reality,' said Northwestern's Yonggang Huang, who co-led the research.
'By comparison to the eyes and the ears, the skin is a relatively underexplored sensory interface that could significantly enhance experiences.'
The patch, or 'epidermal VR' system, has helped US Army veteran Garrett Anderson feel sensations from his prosthetic fingertips after it was placed on his upper arm.
They felt more or less intense - depending on the firmness of his grip.
Anderson, who is now the outreach co-ordinator at the University of Illinois' Chez Veterans Center, said: 'Say that I'm grabbing an egg or something fragile.
'If I can't adjust my grip, then I might crush the egg. I need to know the amount of grip that I'm applying, so that I don't hurt something or someone..'
He lost his right forearm 15 years ago when a bomb exploded under his truck during the Iraq War.
Father-of-two Anderson said: 'It blew the entire engine out of the vehicle. Then shrapnel came through the vehicle and severed my arm, which was hanging on by tendons.'
He believes the device could also 'trick' his brain in a way that relieves phantom pain - and enable him to interact with his children in a new way.
Each individual miniaturised actuator measures just 18 mm in diameter and 2.5 mm thick. It resonates most strongly at 200 cycles per second, where the skin exhibits maximum sensitivity
He said: 'My kids are 13 and 10, so I have never felt them with my right arm. I don't know what it's like when they grab my right hand.'
In another experiment a girl touched a screen displaying a video feed of her grandmother - who sensed it through having the device on her hand and arm.
A third test involved a person playing a combat-based video game while wearing several across his body.
The devices were triggered when a strike occurred on the corresponding part of the computer character.
Project leader Professor John Rogers said the thin, wireless system adds a sense of touch to any Virtual reality (VR) experience.
Combining it with a VR headset would create more interactive and immersive gaming or entertainment experiences.
The wireless, touch-sensitive interface can softly layer over skin and can communicate information through mechanical vibrations