Phone screens of the future could be swampy

Online doom scrollers of the future could one day add a new physical dimension to their tap-and-swipe arsenal. Researchers at the University of Bath recently developed a new 'deformable' silicon-based touchscreen that can change its shape and stiffness when users apply different levels of force to it. The screen, to which they refer as “DeformIO” in an article published in the Computer Machinery Association, uses pneumatics and sensors to sense the pressure levels applied by a finger and then physically wraps around it. Although the bendable screen is still in its infancy, researchers involved in its development say it could one day add a new input layer to mobile devices that could be used for a wide range of usage tasks, from navigating between digital maps to playing games and 'feeling'. the stiffness of products virtually.

“While DeformIO is not the first deformable display, it is the first to use pneumatics and residual sensing,” said James Nash, professor of computer science at the University of Bath and lead author of the study. “In other words, DeformIO allows users to experience richer, more tactile and natural feedback as they press into the elastic surface.”

How does the deformable screen work?

Previous attempts to create tactile, pressure-sensitive displays largely relied on reconfigurable panels and raised pins that lay just beneath the surface of the device and lower when pressure is applied. That form factor was limiting, Nash and his co-authors write, because it would lead to sharp breaks between parts of the screen where pressure is applied and others where it isn't. In this case, DeformIO can apply multiple force inputs to different parts of the screen simultaneously. This new technology allows users to experience a sense of continuous, uninterrupted tactical response as they move their finger across the screen. This particular screen is 3mm thick with a diameter of 140mm2 surface layer.

That innovation in screen design was made possible by using a combination of pneumatics and 'resistive sensing' to detect different pressure levels. Resistive sensing refers to a technique in which physical forces, that is, the forces exerted by a user's finger, are converted into electrical signals that can be understood by a device. These inputs allow the screen's silicon surface to dynamically switch between stiff and soft depending on the amount of force the end user applies. Users can apply force to multiple parts of the screen simultaneously, resulting in a seamless, continuous flow from one part of the device to another, according to the researchers. Nash says tactile flexibility ultimately adds a new layer of interfaces with devices without sacrificing the usability and familiarity of today's glass touchscreens.

“It [DefromIO] offers the same benefits as today's glass-based screens (which allow you to control your device by smoothly moving your finger across the surface), but with the added benefit of allowing a person to use force to interact with their device on a deeper level, Nash said.

Deformable displays can add a new layer of dimensionality to everyday computing

If deformable screens ever reach mass-consumer mobile devices, they could change the way users interact with apps and services they use on a daily basis. The researchers imagine a scenario in which a future traveler equipped with a deformable screen uses it to navigate between parts of a digital map. In this example, the traveler can quickly switch between the road view portion of a map and the satellite view by simply applying more and less pressure to the screen. That same traveler, the researchers claim, could use the deformable screen technology to fire projectiles at enemies in a mobile game on the way to the airport. App makers, meanwhile, could design software that uses the screen to add a tactile sensation to simple actions like deleting files or navigating keyboards.

In another example, the researchers showed an image of a mattress on the screen, along with a slider ranging from soft to stiff. When the slider is moved all the way to the left in the “soft direction,” the screen easily deforms around the user's finger, replicating the bouncy feel of a soft mattress. Moving the slider to the stiffer position makes the device sturdier and more similar to flat screens on current phones. The silicon screen could also be deployed in car touchscreens to provide drivers with more inputs they can use without having to take their eyes off the road for extended periods of time. The researchers hypothesize that drivers could one day use the screen to adjust temperatures or physically sense topographical data on digital maps.

“You would get a tremendous amount of information from your map,” Nash said. “For example, if you enter a city you immediately get demographic data, and if you press on a specific store you will know by the stiffness whether it is open.”

“You would directly manipulate a digital object as you normally would a physical object,” Nash added.

To test the screen, the researchers used a robotic arm to measure the screen's surface stiffness, force detection accuracy and touch detection. A 3D printed ellipse was attached to the end of the robotic arm to mimic a human finger. After that round of testing, human reviewers were brought in to analyze potential user experiences that were too difficult to quantify with robots alone. The human testers were instructed to apply pressure to two separate points on the screen at exactly the same time. That test showed that users could move seamlessly between multiple pressure points on the screen. Likewise, testers were also able to accurately identify when one part of the screen was made stiffer or softer than another part. The people were able to perform regular swipes and drags with varying levels of force and screen stiffness.

New touch interfaces may face resistance from device users who are more comfortable with established glass screens.

It is worth emphasizing that the screen developed by researchers at the University of Bath is still a prototype and is unlikely to reach the hands of the average consumer for at least another decade. Even if technical and scalability issues are addressed, it is unclear whether regular mobile phone users will find the deformable screen's new use cases compelling enough to move away from tried-and-true glass touchscreens. Less novel mobile design interfaces, such as folding and sliding screens, have been around for years, but that's still the case have struggled to achieve high levels of adoption outside the niche audience. It's possible that screens where users dig their fingers into a gelatinous surface could suffer a similar fate. The tricky nature of deformable screens could also compromise device makers' current efforts to make devices thinner.

“We hope that the concepts it embodies could be present in your mobile phone in 10 to 20 years,” computer scientist Jason Alexander of the University of Bath said in a statement. “For now we are investigating for which applications it could be most suitable.”

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