robotic hand device with wires
Afference's "Phantom,"is a series of finger rings that relay tactile information to the brain so the user feels things that aren’t there, including other people.

Company co-founded by Case Western Reserve University researcher named finalist in South by Southwest pitch competition

Using technology created at CWRU, Afference is ‘redefining human experiences through artificial sensation’

When Brandon Prestwood took walks with his wife after losing part of his arm in an industrial accident in 2012, she favored holding his prosthetic hand—even though he couldn’t feel her touch. But the North Carolina man’s desire to restore the physical sensation of holding her hand was why he volunteered to join the groundbreaking research at Case Western Reserve University.

Dustin Tyler, the Kent H. Smith II Professor of Biomedical Engineering at CWRU’s Case School of Engineering, said Prestwood is his personal inspiration for co-founding Afference. His company restores for people the sensation of touch—with help from a set of electrical rings that fit snugly on users’ fingers—from a distance.  

Afference will be showcased as a finalist in the pitch competition at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. SXSW Pitch is the marquee event of South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festival March 8–16. Afference will compete with startups from around the world, featuring some of the most impressive technological innovations to a panel of hand-picked judges and a live audience.

Among 670 companies that applied to present at SXSW Pitch 2024, Afference was selected as one of just 45 finalists—and the second with a CWRU connection—spanning nine categories.

Tactile experiences redefining the future

Afference is a pioneering technology company at the forefront of the spatial computing era, dedicated to redefining human experiences through artificial sensation.

Dustin Tyler
Dustin Tyler

“With a relentless commitment to innovation,” Tyler said, “Afference leverages cutting-edge neuroscience to create a new era of sensory perception.” 

If that sounds like marketing content for a futuristic device featured in a science-fiction flick from the 1980s, it’s because this technology is ahead of its time.

The device Tyler and Afference will feature at SXSW is called “the Phantom”—essentially a proof-of-concept product—a series of finger rings that relay tactile information to the brain so the user feels things that aren’t there, including other people. The Phantom stimulates the rings with wires, allowing users to feel sensation.

“Afference is about neural stimulation for touch through nervous system, as opposed to vibration,” Tyler said.

 In other words, users feel touch when, theoretically, they shouldn’t.

“It’s a new step in developing a neural interface for the brain and digital electronics,” he said. “Our purpose is to enable the same dexterity we experience in the physical realm when in digital realms created by the spatial computing era. We envision a future where we are able to effortlessly move between the physical and digital realms while maintaining our sense of touch in both.”

The ‘next thing’

Even before an appearance at SXSW, the company’s development kit has, unsurprisingly, drawn its fair share of attention. More than 200 companies—including Meta, Apple and Samsung—have reached out expressing interest.

Jacob Segil

After Tyler secured technology licensing from Case Western Reserve—he created the patent, but the university owns it—he co-founded Afference with his former mentee, Jacob Segil, in Boulder, Colorado, in late 2022.

“We think this is the next thing,” Tyler said.

The SXSW Pitch allows founders of Afference to attract a new pool of investors, he said. The goal: to bring the product to market, on store shelves, within two years. 

Last year, the CBS News program 60 Minutes  featured groundbreaking work led by Tyler and his CWRU colleague, A. Bolu Ajiboye, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, to bring a renewed sense of touch to amputees and people with paralysis, using neuroprosthetics.

Prestwood was also featured in the nationally televised story.

“I do the work I do because of people like Brandon,” Tyler said. “I really want to make a difference in people’s lives. How do we connect with each other? In today’s world, I think we need connection more than anything.”

For more information, contact Colin McEwen at