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Foldable touch screens could expand sensor capabilities

Out There | April 13, 2017 | By:

Picture a tablet that you can fold into the size of a phone and put away in your pocket. Or a “skin” that can sense your body’s movements and vital signs. A new sensor developed at the University of British Columbia (UBC) could help make advanced devices with these capabilities common.

UBC reports that the sensor uses a highly conductive gel sandwiched between layers of transparent silicone that can detect different types of touch, including swiping and tapping, even when it is stretched, folded or bent.

The researchers cite current sensors that can detect pressure, such as the iPhone’s 3D Touch, and others that can detect a hovering finger, like Samsung’s AirView, for instance. Also, foldable, transparent and stretchable sensors have been developed.

“Our contribution is a device that combines all those functions in one compact package,” says researcher Mirza Saquib Sarwar, a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at UBC.

The prototype, described in a recent paper in Science Advances, measures 5-by-5 centimeters. The researchers assert that the sensor could be easily scaled up, as it uses relatively inexpensive, widely available materials.

“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,” says Sarwar. And because manufacture of the sensor is relatively inexpensive, Sarwar says, “It could be embedded cost-effectively in disposable wearables like health monitors.”

The sensor could also be used in industry to make human-robot interactions safer, adds John Madden, Sarwar’s supervisor and a professor in UBC’s applied science program.

“Currently, machines are kept separate from humans in the workplace because of the possibility that they could injure humans. If [robots] 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,” Madden says.

The research about this human-computer interaction was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The researchers see great potential for delivering sensors for wearables and other advanced devices throughout the house and over the surface of the body.

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