Cambridge researchers develop robotic 'Third Thumb' to boost productivity

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a controllable robotic extra thumb which is designed to enhance productivity – and tests show people have no trouble using it.

The third thumb, which is worn on the opposite side of the palm to the biological thumb, is powered by wrist-worn motors which are controlled by a pressure sensor placed under each big toe or foot. How much the thumb moves is proportional to the pressure applied, and releasing pressure moves it back to its original position.

In 2022, the third thumb was showcased at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where nearly 600 members of the public tested the device. Tasks included picking up pegs from a pegboard and manipulating objects in a short time frame.

Just four people were unable to use the robotic thumb either because it did not fit their hand securely, or because they were unable to control it with their feet.

Tamar Makin, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, said: "We are also really excited about potential opportunities of using the thumb to enhance productivity in work settings, especially those that are relying on their hand's manual dexterity in order to accomplish their work.”

“This can be anywhere between manual labourers that are trying to solder a complicated kit or even surgeons that have to negotiate between many instruments at the same time."

The Third Thumb’s creator, British product designer Dani Clode – who is a collaborator within Professor Makin’s lab – envisions the device as a tool for people with disabilities such as paralysis or differences in their upper limbs, or those with reduced physical functioning due to conditions like broken arms or strokes.

The results of the study are published in Science Robotics.

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