Alright, now this is super cool technology. My mind is racing with potential applications.
Unflattening Touch Screen Buttons
Ever wish the flat touch screen buttons on your phone felt more like physical buttons?
Chris Harrison and Prof. Scott Hudson at Carnegie Mellon have developed a simple technology that turns touch screen buttons into physical buttons by using pneumatics.
The technology consists of a flexible surface area with a hard backing that acts as a mask for the button shapes. An air chamber behind the backing can be pressurized or depressurized using pneumatic technology, in this case fan-based pumps.
When positive pressure is applied, the buttons pop out. When the pressure is neutral, the screen is flat. When negative pressure is applied, the buttons pop inwards.
Images are displayed on the surface using a projector behind the device, turning the surface into a display screen. Button presses are detected using an infra-red camera pointed at the front of the screen that detects reflections of light from a fingernail. When your fingernail gets close to the screen, a button press is recorded. This technology cannot easily distinguish between a finger touching the screen and one merely close to the screen, so a press is not recorded until the finger presses down on the surface and causes a detectable change in pressure in the air chamber.
It is also possible to have the positive and negative forms take different shapes. Additional parts are added to the mask, except these parts have no adhesive holding the latex down. When positive pressure is applied, only the mask parts with adhesive are effective. When negative pressure is applied, all the mask parts are effective.
Instead of pressing images that look like buttons on your phone, this technology could allow all the dynamically drawn button images on your phone to actually pop out like real buttons. (One change that would be needed is making touch sensing based on capacitance technology, as current touch screens do, rather than a camera aimed at the screen.)
The pop-inwards feature is also pretty cool. You could be playing a driving game on your cell phone and have the car’s dashboard pop inwards to appear like a real car’s. Or, when you displayed the stopwatch on your phone, it could be displayed like a real concave stopwatch.
With a single air chamber, all the buttons must popped in or out at once. However, it is straightforward to create separate air chambers, thereby allowing only certain elements of the UI to pop in or out.
An unavoidable limitation is that the mask itself is static, meaning that new shapes cannot be created dynamically. The technology only allows controlling whether the shapes pop in, pop out, or remain flat.