A few years ago, I attended a haptic technology conference. There was the usual array of silly gadgets that only technically fulfilled the haptic definition (a dog collar that buzzes when the dog leaves the house, a stylus that vibrates when you tap it) but buried way toward the back was a supposedly tactile touchscreen – and it worked!
The device vibrated at various frequencies to basically knock your finger off the screen several times per second, effectively adjusting the friction between finger and glass. As I moved from a picture of concrete to a picture of ice, my finger seemed to slip accordingly, and while that might not be what you’d call “useful,” it certainly sold me on the concept: Creative use of haptics can be more than just the Rumble Pak 2.0. It can fundamentally affect how we use these devices.
These sorts of haptic technologies are almost all trying to use vibration to simulate some other physical sensation, but what if we could actually change the friction of the surface, make it smoother or bumpier with real physical deformations? More to the point, what if we could make a keyboard that actually pops out of the screen, and which can be depressed as we type? Strategic Polymers claims it will bring a product to market next year that can do just that: Pop up keys that actually click when clicked, and that do so with a ground-breaking millisecond response time.
Even Star Trek didn’t posit such advances some 300 years in the future, with even the Federation’s flagship using flat, chirpy touchscreens. The Strategic Polymers solution uses a new high-strain electromechanical material that can deform by “as much as 10 per cent,” and which responds quickly.
Historically, we’ve had to choose one of those two virtues, getting either slow and meaningful responses, or quick and tiny ones. Here, Strategic Polymers claims, we’ve got a technology that will allow true, clickable keys to pop right out of the surface of your smartphone’s touchscreen, and to respond quickly and accurately. See an early video of the technology below.
The technology works via electrostriction, which is a property of every dielectric object in the world. By engineering this polymer to respond very specifically to an applied electric field, however, the researchers claim to be able to create all sorts of useful deformations – like, for instance, a couple of dozen square keyboard keys. By adjusting the applied electric field in response to touch, the screen can seem to move in response to pressure, though in reality it’s still only moving in response to the electric field, which is changing in response to touch. The result, if it all works as quickly and seamlessly as Strategic Polymers claims, would be a real physical keyboard on a fully functional touchscreen.
What is currently unclear, however, is how pre-programmed these physical features might need to be. It’s of course exciting to imagine a touchscreen that could take on a new physical controller layout for every game or application, put a rough strip down the right side of the screen for a nice tactile scroll bar, or volume slider you can feel slide, or perhaps just an embossed top logo. Current info doesn’t make it clear if this will be possible, however, as the deformations might need to be built into the electroactive polymer; a keyboard could work because a reliable key layout could be built right into the polymer. The ITProPortal logo is, unfortunately, much more up in the air.
One very interesting feature is the material’s ability to play sound. A speaker is just a highly controlled vibrating surface, really, one that creates patterns of tiny shockwaves that we interpret as sound. This haptic technology has a low enough response time that it can do this itself. Watch the video above to see how this tech could turn just about any surface into a low-fi computer speaker.
Virtually everyone who’s used a touchscreen keyboard has wished for this technology at one time or another. It calls to mind all sorts of wild and questionably useful applications, like a raised ring you can physically stick your thumb into and drag down to scroll, or a Google Maps with real topology. It’s the sort of advance that could finally drag Apple out of the “But it’s just a faster iPhone!” era, offering the biggest step forward in touchscreen functionality since multi-touch.