Flexible sensor could bring forward folding touchscreens

Flexible sensor could bring forward folding touchscreens [Image: from2015 via iStock]

Researchers have developed a new sensor that could bring forward the possibility of a folding touchscreen device.

According to the University of British Columbia (UCB) researchers, the sensor uses a highly conductive gel sandwiched between layers of silicone that can detect different types of touch, including swiping and tapping, even when it is stretched, folded or bent. This feature makes it suited for foldable devices of the future.

Mirza Saquib Sarwar, PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at UBC, said: “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. 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 5cm by 5cm, but the researchers said this could be easily scaled up as it uses inexpensive and widely available materials.

Mr Sarwar added: “It's entirely possible to make a room-sized 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 touchscreen.”

“And because it's cheap to manufacture, it could be embedded cost-effectively in disposable wearables like health monitors.”

John Madden, professor in UBC's faculty of applied science, said the sensor could also be integrated in robotic ‘skins’ to make human-robot interactions safer.

Mr Madden added: “Currently, machines are kept separate from humans in the workplace because of the possibility that they could injure humans. 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.”