Steimle On On-Skin Interfaces

Jürgen Steimle writes in IEEE Computer about “Skin-The Next User Interface” [2].  The “inappropriate Touch Screen Interface” must and will soon yield to a variety of Very Appropriate Touch Interfaces (as I have been predicting for almost two decades now).

Of course, there are many interesting problems, both technical and design, that must be worked out. Steimle outlines three key areas to investigate: interaction design, input and output technology, and humanistic questions, including safety and privacy.

The first point is that current “multitouch” gestures are completely wrong for skin based interfaces, for many reasons. Touch gestures on skin offer an entirely new field of possible designs. For example, one might adjusts volume by rubbing a thumb and finger together, or by stroking your ear—gestures that have no correspondence to touch screen gestures.

Steimle reports on an interesting study which asked people to pretend that they could interact with their phone via touching their own skin [1].  The participants adapted some common multitouch gestures, and invented new gestures appropriate to skin. These include intriguing gestures to express “sympathy” and “anger”, and “scratching” or “pinching” to command deletion. As he says, “research in this area is still in an early stage” ([2], p. 85), which makes it quite exciting.

How can we make these ideas real? Current technology is crude and ineffective, with low spatial resolution and limited accuracy. “Stretchable” electronics seem promising, if they can be made safe, rugged, and comfortable. In addition, on-skin interfaces should be flexible and fashionable.

Along this line, he discusses “iSkin”, which is a personalize stretchable sensor, that functions like a slip on tattoo. [3] This is pretty cool (though we need to get rid of the wires!)

Steimle makes a good point that there are both health issues and serious privacy issues raised by this type of technology. On-skin sensors are already in use for (intimate) medical monitoring (<link>>, and one would not like to see such data broadcast willy-nilly to the world. For that matter, on-skin haptic interfaces lead directly to creepy remote touch and sure to be contested applications such as remote dildonics.

As I have said many times—the era of touchscreens will prove to be a very short lived technical period. Screens are over, long live whole body interfaces.


  1. Gustafson, S., C. Holz, and P. Baudisch. Imaginary phone: Learning imaginary interfaces by transferring spatial memory from a familiar device. In UIST’11 – Proceedings of the 24th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, 2011, 283-292.
  2. Steimle, J., Skin–The Next User Interface. Computer, 49 (4):83-87, 2016.
  3. Weigel, Martin, Tong Lu, Gilles Bailly, Antti Oulasvirta, Carmel Majidi, #252, and rgen Steimle, iSkin: Flexible, Stretchable and Visually Customizable On-Body Touch Sensors for Mobile Computing, in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2015, ACM: Seoul, Republic of Korea. p. 2991-3000.

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