University of Bristol, Department of Computer Science

Shape-shifting prototypes give us a glimpse of the future mobile devices. University of Bristol, Department of Computer Science

Six new prototypes for shape-shifting smartphones and mobile devices were recently unveiled, along with a method for classifying such devices as they make their way from research labs to the consumer marketplace.

Led by researchers from the University of Bristol's Department of Computer Science, a team of computer scientists presented a series of so-called “Morphees” they believe could help create Transformer-like mobile devices of the future.

“Morphees are the future generation of flexible mobile devices,” lead researcher Anne Roudaut told Discovery News. “These are mobile devices that can change their shape on their own.”

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Roudaut envisions future users downloading games embedded with form factors that curl the edges of thin, mobile devices inward to resemble a game console shape, with the curved sides doubling as triggers for shooting games. Additionally, Roudaut sees the edges of Morphees bending to protect screen content or passwords and touch screens that take the shape of its displayed object.

The prototypes were made out of a range of materials like plastic, paper and wood, along with shape-changing materials and shape-memory alloys.

One prototype consisted of a plastic sheet sandwiched between two electrode layers. When voltage was applied to the electrodes, electrostatic forces squeezed the sheet, causing it to expand like a future touchscreen might do. Shape-memory alloys are special malleable metals that return to their original shape after being heated. These metals were primarily used as wires on the underside of four prototype displays. Passing an electric current through them caused them to bend, contorting the display "surface."

Another prototype used small motors connected to guitar strings affixed to a plastic sheet. When a motor turned in one direction, it bent the display surface. Another prototype used interlocking, heat-resistant wood tiles stitched together with SMA wire. Researchers connected the wires to a transistor and an Arduino board to give the prototype three bendable functions.

While these crude materials merely mimicked flexible glass or plastic touchscreens, their main function was to support the shape-shifting materials and provide researchers with potential concepts for future applications.

Shape-shifting prototypes give us a glimpse of the future mobile devices. University of Bristol, Department of Computer Science

“We envision those shape-changing materials will be embedded into the component itself,” said Roudaut. “You would be able to have all the layers of the screen, the touch sensors and the actuator sensor all together, blending into a single material.”

Giving mobile devices more affordance -- or the capability of an object to tell you how it wants to be used -- motivates such ambitions. Roudaut says to consider the shape of a doorknob, which intuitively suggests a cupped hand will turn, push and/or pull it.

“Right now, mobile phones have no affordance, they’re just these rectangular flat screens,” she said. “We need to reintroduce a bit of this affordance and give these devices more shapes that speak to their functionality.”

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Researchers also created a “shape resolution” metric that adds to the “screen resolution” and “touch resolution” specifications of current mobile devices. Their metric features ten principles that gauge a flexible screen’s ability to stretch, bend, close, and curve, just to name four. Much like we shop for smartphones with screens with high-pixel displays, researchers believe their metric will help inform future consumers when they buy their first shape-shifting mobile device.

Sidhant Gupta, a researcher in the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering department, says he thinks a “shape resolution” metric will also help engineers and designers.

“Unlike megapixels for digital cameras or resolution for LCDs, we currently have no equivalent metric to compare two shape-shifting or flexible devices, thus it is difficult to document the progression or regression of such technology,” he explained.

Roel Vertegaal, creator of the world’s first interactive paper computer and professor of human-computer interaction at Queen’s University in Canada, says mobile technology itself is about to transform.

“First we will see thinner mobiles, then flexible,” Vertegaal stated. “After this, the next wave will be actuating these devices, which is five to tens years out.”

Roudaut and colleagues presented their research at the 2013 CHI conference in Paris.