Bend & Stretch your Touchscreen

The future is flexible; rolling up our devices like newspapers and wallpapering rooms with flexible displays will no longer be a reverie. Large devices ranging from a play-station to scientific research equipment … (Featured image is intended for representational purpose alone and has been sourced from and created by Superdiddly [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

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The future is flexible; rolling up our devices like newspapers and wallpapering rooms with flexible displays will no longer be a reverie. Large devices ranging from a play-station to scientific research equipment will occupy considerably smaller areas and will be highly portable. Scientists will be able to just fold their equipment and take it to a desired location of research.

A couple of years ago, a co-blogger penned an article on Smartphones that can Roll into a Scroll. However, today’s needs go beyond that. If a laptop or a tablet can roll up and fit into a travel bag or a Mac pocket; could we ask for anything better!

Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver have developed a highly flexible and transparent touchpad, which can differentiate between a stretch and a touch.  This research led to a breakthrough in the advancement of electronic devices, paving the way for the development of more advanced wearable touchscreens. While there are multiple inventions in this space, let’s roll back in time to understand when it all began.

 The Flexi-screen innovation bug bit

It took generations and several major technological advancements for touchscreens to achieve a significant presence.

1960s: The first touchscreen

Historians consider the finger-driven touchscreen invented by E.A. Johnson in 1965 at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, United Kingdom, the first touchscreen device. Johnson published his work in an article titled “Touch display — a novel input/output device for computers”, which was published in the Electronics Letters. This article included a diagram describing the capacitive touch mechanism that most smartphones use today.

1970s: Resistive Touch Screen Technology

The resistive touchscreen was accidentally invented five years later in 1970 by Dr. G. Samuel Hurst during an experiment. Dr. Hurst realized the benefits of a resistive touchscreen when he placed it over a computer monitor, and he started perfecting it. Today, resistive touchscreens are extremely affordable and are widely used in restaurants and factories around the world.

1980s: First Commercial Use

Nimesh Mehta, in 1982, developed the first human-controlled multi-touch device at the University of Toronto. It wasn’t so much a touchscreen as it was a touch-tablet. The Input Research Group at the University figured out that a frosted-glass panel with a camera behind it could detect action as it recognized different “black spots” showing up on-screen.

1990s: First touch phone

In 1993, IBM and BellSouth teamed up and launched the Simon Personal Computer – the first phone with a touchscreen interface. Apple soon followed suit and launched a touchscreen PDA with the Newton touch sensitive PDA.

2000 and beyond

Touchscreens were marking their presence in the market, yet it took the smartphones of the 2000s to help the technology flourish. The ease of portability of a mobile phone and advancements in telecom and semiconductor technology helped turn the mobile phone smart. To make it easier to use, multitouch and gesture-based technologies gained momentum, encouraging innovation. The 2000s were also the era in which touchscreens became the favorite tool for design collaboration.

Each of these technologies had a monumental impact on the gadgets we use today. Everything from our smartphones to laptop trackpads and WACOM tablets can be connected to the many inventions, discoveries, and patents in the history of touchscreen technology.

The aforementioned eras have also witnessed thousands of patent filings. Majority of them are assigned to Samsung, LG Electronics, Microsoft, Intel, Nubia (a subsidiary of ZTE), Apple and Google. Patents such as US6335725B1, US8599150B2, US7614008B2, and US6670950B1 disclose inventions boosting the performance of touchscreens significantly and aiming to effectively incorporate features of the touchpad in several other existing devices.

Bent/ Fold-Resistant Touchscreen Technology

Although companies use transparent tactile sensors based on metal mesh, silver nanowire and carbon nanotubes that demonstrate operation in bent configurations, they struggle to operate when stretched. This results in its inability to differentiate between a touch and a stretch. Bent resistant touchpads enhance the scope of sensing finger proximity, which includes light touch during active bending and even stretching. In addition to stretch detection, the touchpad has a transparent color, which aids its combination with a flexible display to create a flexible touchscreen.

Patents such as US 20110205169A1 and WO 2006013345A2 describe interesting touch detection technology methods. Patent US 20110205169A1 discloses a method of mapping finger movement on the touchpad pad of a display screen by identifying absolute coordinates of one or more finger touch points on the touchpad. It then designates a portion of the display screen as a portion mapping area.

Figs. 10 and 11 of patent US 20110205169A1 describe the process of moving the temporal initial touch point using a continuous translation command by moving a triangle to the edge region of the portion mapping area.

How it works

Stretchable hydrogel electrodes generate an electric field to couple and sense a touch. Whenever a finger interacts with the electric field, the electrodes can detect the finger touch and are capable of differentiating a finger touch from stretching and bending of sensors. Patent US 20160025669A1, assigned to Harvard College, reflects similar development in the domain of stretchable touchpads.

Fig. 13C of patent publication US 20160025669A1 discloses a stretchable touchpad attached to a hand.

Researchers of the University of British Columbia have created a square transparent touchpad that is about 1.2 inches wide and includes 16 buttons – each 0.2 inches wide. The array can withstand bending and stretching while maintaining its sensing capabilities. It can also withstand environmental problems like coffee spill, dirt, etc. and detect multiple fingers at a time, making it favorable for smartphones with zooming capability.

Future of Bendable Display Technology

As smart devices with flexible and curved displays are slowly trickling into the market, the display industry is still days away from super bendable electronics and foldable displays. Scientists are developing new ways to produce bendable displays with a safer storage equipment and zero screen breakage risk. The development of the bendable displays seem to show no signs of slowing down.

(Featured image is intended for representational purpose alone and has been sourced from and created by Superdiddly [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Ashish Kumar
Ashish Kumar

Ashish is a tech-dreamer who enjoys conjuring up futuristic technologies and exploring avenues for them to fit into the real world scheme of things. He also enjoys travelling.


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