Monday, November 29, 2010

Microsoft files patent for shape-shifting touchscreen

Every now and then a new technology comes about that has the potential to change the way how we interact with computers in a profound manner. The first computer mouse, the first touchscreen display, the first use of multi-touch – all paved the way for a new generation of user interfaces.

I believe we are now witnessing the introduction of the next such new technology. In a new US patent application 20100295820, which was published last week, Microsoft inventor Erez Kikin-Gil proposes a new way to construct a “tactile feedback” touchscreen. According to this new invention, a shape-memory polymer film is placed onto a computer display and UV light is used on a pixel-by-pixel basis to selectively change the topography of the surface.

While tactile feedback displays are nothing new per se, previous approaches by Nokia, Disney, and others had been using voltages of different frequencies to trick fingertips into experiencing some touch sensations. The huge disadvantage of such vibrotacticle displays, however, is the annoying humming sounds they emit. Which might be one reason why they were never widely successful.

The Microsoft invention completely circumvents that problem and proposes a radically different approach using UV lights and a plastic film that is using shape-memory polymer technology. Here is the abstract from the patent application:

A light-induced shape-memory polymer display screen is provided herein. One example display device includes a display screen having a topography-changing layer including a light-induced shape-memory polymer. The display device further includes an imaging engine configured to project visible light onto the display screen, where the visible light may be modulated at a pixel level to form a display image thereon. The display device further includes a topography-changing engine configured to project agitation light of an ultraviolet band towards the display screen, where the agitation light is modulated at a pixel level to selectively change a topography of the topography-changing layer.

And here are some of the drawings attached to the patent application to further illustrate the invention and its use in display technology:

Fig. 2

FIG. 2 schematically shows agitation light projected onto a light-induced shape-memory polymer

Fig. 5

FIG. 5 schematically shows a user interacting with an example display screen having a topography-changing layer

It is widely assumed that such shape-shifting touchscreens would at first be used in surface computing displays, like tabletop computers, but it isn’t impossible to imagine smartphone or tablet computers using such technology, too. How cool would that be!

For further reference, see this article in New Scientist Tech, as well as blog posts on Gizmodo and more via Techmeme.

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