Roll up your smartphones
A bendable silicon sensor is on the horizon, making flexible touchscreens and robot skins distinct possibilities in the near future, writes Daisy Dunne
IMAGINE owning a smartphone or TV that can roll up to fit in your pocket. That could soon be reality, thanks a new flexible sensor that can detect subtle differences in touch, including swiping and tapping. Researchers said the stretchable sensor can be used to build folding TV screens and tablets and may even be used to make skin for robots.
The team from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver used a highly conductive gel sandwiched between layers of silicone to make their bendable sensor. It is sensitive to different types of touch even when it is stretched, folded or bent. The stretchy transparent sensor, pictured in the hands of researcher Mirza Saquib Sarwar, can be used to build foldable screens
Scientists have invented a flexible sensor, using conductive gel and silicon.
The low-cost material can be altered to make stretchy sensors of any shape or size. These features make the sensor suitable for the foldable devices of the future.
“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,” said researcher Mirza Saquib Sarwar, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of British Columbia.
The flexible sensor is sensitive to different types of touch, including swiping and tapping, even when it is bent. The flexible sensor is sensitive to different types of touch, including swiping and tapping, even when it is bent and folded.
“There are also sensors that are foldable, transparent and stretchable. Our contribution is a device that combines all those functions in one compact package.”
The prototype measures 5sqcm but can be easily scaled up as it uses inexpensive, materials, including gel and silicone, said the researchers.
“It’s entirely possible to make a roomsized version of this sensor for just dollars per square metre, 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.”
To create the sensor, a gel is poured out and combined with silicon-based materials that are stretchy and transparent. The mixture is then flattened into a centimetrethin silicone film and sensors are attached.
There is no limit on how many sensors can be packed into the silicone film. The sensor could also be integrated in robotic “skins” to make human-robot interactions safer, according to John Madden, a professor at the university’s faculty of applied science.
“Currently, machines are kept separate from humans in the workplace because of the possibility that they could injure humans,” he said.
“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.”
The research was published in the journal Science Advances.