Smartphones evolving from flat to flex with new shapeshifting prototypes

The mobile devices of tomorrow will be shapeshifters, and experimentation in the design space will make them a reality, according to Anne Roudaut. She’s a computer scientist at the University of Bristol who, along with U.K. and German colleagues, is unveiling flexible touchscreen prototypes at CHI2013 on Monday. The devices they’ve built incorporate smart materials and can morph into different shapes, hence the name “Morphees.”

Static touchscreens can be compared on dimensions like pixel density, screen size, or refresh rate, but no such vocabulary exists for shape-changing devices, Roudaut said. One of the goals of the Morphees project was to create metrics to describe flexible devices and their ability to change shape. Having these “shape resolution” descriptors will help the construction of devices to fit the services they are designed to support. Roudaut cites the example of a stress ball: downloading the app would cause the device to collapse into a sphere that the user could squeeze.

Right now, the Morphee prototypes need external help to change shape, like wires, springs, and actuators, but in the future, the flexible material, touch sensor, and actuator will be merged. “All the layers will be made of flexible material,” says Roudaut. “My work is to make that happen faster, with new prototypes, and pushing the vision so companies [become] interested in making higher fidelity devices.”


Roudaut and colleagues experimented with six different Morphees — made of materials like wood, dielectric electroactive polymers, and smart memory alloys — and measured their shape resolution along dimensions like speed (how fast can it deform) and ability to curve. They wanted to get a sense of what kinds of materials are functional — and safe. “The electroactive polymer requires a huge voltage. We had to figure out how to use it without electrocuting ourselves,” says Roudaut.

A tiled touchscreen made of wood and smart memory alloy wires (above) seemed the most promising of the prototypes. It was able to hold its shape and could quickly curve. Another prototype using a two millimeter-thick E-ink display could roll into a cylinder, but could achieve greater flexibility if it was even thinner, according to Roudaut.

These concepts are already being brought to life by companies like Fremont, Calif.-based Tactus. Its shape-changing display layer takes the place of the front glass on a smartphone and creates a physical keyboard with inflatable buttons that can appear and recede. The challenges in this space, according to Roudaut, remain finding suitably heat-resistant materials that can create sufficient force – after all, having your stress ball phone crumble when you squeeze it would be decidedly stress-inducing.