- Title: Scientists working on 'morphing' smart phone screens
- Date: 30th September 2016
- Summary: LONDON, ENGLAND, UK (FILE) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF PEOPLE WALKING AND LOOKING DOWN AT SMART PHONES
- Embargoed: 15th October 2016 15:42
- Keywords: tactile morph phone cellphone mobile screen touchscreen
- Location: SWANSEA, WALES, BRISTOL AND LONDON, ENGLAND, UK / UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION
- City: SWANSEA, WALES, BRISTOL AND LONDON, ENGLAND, UK / UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION
- Country: United Kingdom
- Topics: Science
- Reuters ID: LVA00B52B7VX7
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: A smart phone screen that can mutate into a tangible dial may sound like science fiction, but scientists in Swansea say it could one day become a reality.
Swansea University's professor of computer science Matt Jones believes smart phone displays have hit a technological brick wall; they can be made brighter and have higher resolution, but still require users to spend most of the time starring down.
"What we want to do is to see if we can move away from the very seductive but flat and dull dead screens of conventional mobile phones; try and bring them alive so you can feel and touch and manipulate them with perhaps not even having to look down and being drawn into that dark screen," Jones told Reuters.
Streaming videos, music players and a multitude of apps means we're spending more time than ever with our heads buried in our tablets and phones. On top of the associated aches and pains this causes - such as the so-called 'text neck' - it can distract people while walking, possibly putting them in harm's way.
The device the Swansea team envisions will still have all the features of a smart phone, but with tactile controls like buttons and sliders that physically emerge from the screen to help the user spend less time looking down.
"What we'd love to be able to do is have similar form factors, so not hugely thick devices - still attractively packaged, still sleek and seductive. But with this added feature; that your hard screen can dissolve in front of your eyes and up comes some controls. Those controls could be physical sliders that you could put your fingers on and around and actually physically move. There could be a dial that comes out of the screen and, without even having to look around and down at the screen, you'll put your fingers down and turn the dial. And when you've finished, it will just dissolve back again, seamlessly and beautifully," added Jones.
The project began in June 2016 after the team was awarded over 1 million pounds (1.3 million USD) in funding from the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council following a peer review of their proposal. The project is scheduled to last for 42 months. At the end of this time period, the team hopes to have a range of concept designs to show where this type of technology could be viable, as well as a series of materials that demonstrate how the concepts could be developed.
Jones concedes it will take massive investment to make the morphing phone screen a reality, but they hope to gather enough useful data to inspire industries to get on-board with the technology to take it to the next level.
"We might have to spend and others might have to spend millions and millions and millions of dollars to get there. But before we do that it's really important to understand what the benefits are. So our research starts with exposing the technology to real people with real needs and understanding how this kind of new interaction might fit into their everyday lives. And then producing low fidelity, quick and dirty versions of systems," he said.
At the university's Future Interaction Technology Lab and in collaboration with the University of Grenoble in France, the team has built several rudimentary prototypes that show how pixels on a phone screen could influence the ones adjacent when manipulated by a person's finger. At the moment the device has just 28 of these large 'pixels', but it's enough to test how people's interaction with the device could work in the real world.
Other organisations are investigating similar ways that users can 'feel' and interact with virtual objects, such as using ultrasound to precisely project sensations through the air so sound waves produce forces on the skin which are strong enough to generate tactile sensation. However, Jones believes their approach takes this nascent technology one step further.
"There's some fantastic approaches using high-frequency sound which can then create the sensation of a dial or a slider or any other object in front of your hand. But they're not really there, you can push your hand through them and it is just an illusion. We want to go one more step in terms of magic and make a real object appear and disappear," said Jones.
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