Smartphone users know the pain of having a shattered phone display. Even protectors tend to break and I am no stranger to broken protectors every few weeks. It's a total pain I tell you! Canadian researchers have come up with a solution to this problem. They just invented a touch sensitive material that is super soft and flexible. This piece of engineering can allow you to fold up your phone or tablet when not in use and also allow us to wear adaptive health sensors that can conform to our bodies similar to an artificial skin.
According to what engineer Mirza Saquib Sarwar from the University of British Columbia told CBC News, "It's the first transparent touch sensor that is still able to detect a touch while being actively deformed." Malleable displays have been the focus of research for many years now. Scientists have been trying to develop phones, touch-screens and TVs that can be bent and folded like a newspaper. The material that Sarwar and his team developed is basically a highly conductive gel that is sandwiched between layers of silicone. This entire mechanism brings together various functions in one flexible structure.
According to Sarwar, “There are sensors that can detect pressure, such as the iPhone's 3D Touch, and some that can detect a hovering finger, like Samsung's AirView. There are also sensors that are foldable, transparent, and stretchable. Our contribution is a device that combines all those functions in one compact package." Making a malleable device that can detect your touch when it is deformed is no doubt a challenge; however, a greater challenge is in making the same material detect fingers that aren’t even in contact with the device yet.
To make all this possible, the team used special hydrogel electrodes that were embedded in the silicone layers. These electrodes were able to create an electric field around the sensor. The team’s 5 cm x 5 cm prototype was able to register a finger that was hovering a few centimeters above the material. The prototype is very small and according to the researchers it would be much easier and affordable to develop larger sensors for bigger devices. Sarwar said, “It's entirely possible to make a room-sized version of this sensor for just dollars per square meter, and then put sensors on the wall, on the floor, or over the surface of the body – almost anything that requires a transparent, stretchable touch screen. And because it's cheap to manufacture, it could be embedded cost-effectively in disposable wearables like health monitors."
The team wishes to make much larger sensors, about the size of a room so that they can be used on floors. These sensors will be able to tell how many people are standing on a particular floor area and in elderly care units to alert the staff if somebody has fallen over. The team believes that their research could be beneficial in other ways as well. They think that it would help make robots safer for humans if they get covered in the soft sensory material. John Madden, a team member said, “Currently, machines are kept separate from humans in the workplace because of the possibility that they could injure humans. If a robot could detect our presence and be 'soft' enough that they don't damage us during an interaction, we can safely exchange tools with them, they can pick up objects without damaging them, and they can safely probe their environment."