TOKYO - Picture an urban hospital in the not-so-distant future -- say, 2020. A surgeon puts on scrubs and gloves made from a special material. A monitor in front of the doctor displays a patient on an island hundreds of kilometers away. Beside the patient's bed stands a robot holding a scalpel.
The surgeon looks at the screen and moves the scalpel. Almost simultaneously, the robot moves its scalpel the same way.
Researchers in Japan are getting closer to making that scenario possible. The key is what our hypothetical doctor wears -- something scientists call piezoelectric fabric. The piezoelectric effect is a phenomenon in which a charge is generated when pressure is applied to an object.
"This cloth generates electric energy," Teijin's Tomoyoshi Yamamoto said of a fabric that, to the untrained eye, appears ordinary. Yamamoto is tasked with promoting cutting-edge materials related to energy and the environment. The cloth in question was developed with western Japan's Kansai University.
The fabric is even washable. A little pressure starts the real magic -- the energy that is generated can be converted into electrical signals, transmitted wirelessly and recorded as data. By wrapping the cloth around a person's arm, for instance, it should be possible to mimic the movements of the arm.
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