UBC department develops flexible and transparent sensor that could allow users to fold smartphones

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      As new technologies continue to burst out of Vancouver, an invention by the UBC applied science department looks set to change the way that users experience smart screens. Creating a flexible, transparent, and stretchable sensor able to detect everything from physical pressure to a hovering finger, the department has opened up a new set of possibilities for digital devices.

      The sensor uses a highly conductive gel sandwiched between layers of silicone, and its mechanism can detect different types of touch—including swiping and tapping—even when stretched, folded or bent. With that technology, it would be possible to develop anything from tablets or laptops that can be folded and put away in a person’s pocket, or an artificial skin that can sense a body’s movements and vital signs.

      The prototype measures 5 cm by 5 cm, but, due to the inexpensiveness and wide availability of its materials, researcher Mirza Saquib Sarwar—a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at UBC—says that it could easily be increased in size.

      “It’s entirely possible to make a room-sized version of this sensor for just dollars per square metre,” he describes in a press release. “The sensors could be put on the wall, on the floor, or over the surface of the body—almost anything that requires a transparent, stretchable touch screen. And because it’s cheap to manufacture, it could be embedded cost-effectively in disposable wearables like health monitors.”

      John Madden, Sarwar’s supervisor and a professor in UBC’s faculty of applied science, suggests that the sensor could engender closer relations between humans and robots, particularly as the workplace becomes further automated.

      “Currently, machines are kept separate from humans because of the possibility that they could injure them,” Madden says. “If a robot could detect our presence and be ‘soft’ enough that they don’t damage us during an interaction, we could safely exchange tools with them, they can pick up objects without damaging them, and they can safely probe their environment.”

      Offering a number of possibilities for hi-tech computing, all eyes will doubtless be on UBC as the pair moves forward from their prototype.

      Clare Kiernan / UBC Public Affairs

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