Shape changing plastics could shape future device interaction

April 10, 2013
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What if your phone could change its texture? What if your screen could create physical buttons, or provide pinpoint haptic feedback? There is technology that could deliver that for us. It’s probably a long way off, but the concept is amazing.

If you have ever had a phone with a physical, QWERTY keyboard… you probably understand how great those are. It took away from the screen size, but at the time those were popular… we had no use for a larger screen. Now that we have Smartphones, with games and such, we can’t get enough of the larger screens. Yet, now and then, we all wish those physical keyboards could somehow be worked into our slim, sleek devices.

Perhaps, with this new technology, we can. What’s being called ‘shape changing plastic’ has the ability to manipulate itself on a very small scale. The technology, which utilizes electrostriction, basically applies an electrical field to your touchscreen. In doing so, the material the screen is made of reacts to the charge, and the varied charge can create texture.

The actual material of the screen is different, of course. It is a polymer which can be manipulated by “as much as 10%”. The only information on it is that it is a “high-strain electromechanical material”, and will re-form itself quickly after manipulation. This has usually been a compromise; we either got material that could be manipulated, but reformed slowly… or had limited formation properties, while keeping its shape well.

Tons of cool things are possible with this technology. Take, for instance, gaming. If, while playing a game, the actual physical interaction of your device could change… it would add a layer of enjoyment we’ve not yet imagined. Skateboarding over rough cement, or walking through mud… even flying into a headwind. All that could be realized in much better detail than our current method of altered game physics. We’d actually feel what we’re doing, not just experience it.

Accessibility

Shape changing plastic has a much deeper impact than many of us may realize, also. Think of those who need a little assistance functioning in society, under the parameters it has set forth. Some of us get by with a little help from our friends, or in this case… devices.

How many signs do you see in braille? Not many, I’m sure. A pinpoint haptic feedback screen could be manipulated into braille, adding a layer of functionality to society for our blind citizens. While audible feedback is handy, braille on a touchscreen could make things much more discoverable for them. As our tech world becomes more ingrained with our physical one, simple tasks we may take for granted, like stopping outside a restaurant to read a menu, could become available for a greater number of people. The GPS would know your position, and offer to give you the restaurant info and menu.

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Conclusion

Things that make life better also have the ability to make it simpler. Even though this technology is still in its infancy, it is absolutely one we should keep an eye on. Passive polymer such as this has the ability to do much more than enhance touch, as the video below demonstrates. The audio quality produced isn’t fantastic, but it’s a good start.

Will we ever see something as cool as a 3D model, popping from our mobile device screen? That’s hard to say. To be fair, we didn’t think a device screen could manipulate itself. There was also a time we didn’t think tilting a device could result in action, or viewing a web page could be done in a mobile environment. The future is an exciting place, and we’re all going.

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