Shape-shifting smartphones and tablets might be on their way


Is your smartphone or tablet too thick? Too thin? Too bulky? Want to make it into your portable gaming device despite not having a controller? Scientists in Europe have developed prototype devices that could drastically change the way we interact with our smartphones and tablets. The six working prototypes, or “Morphees,” are thin, electronic displays capable of automatically changing shape to perform certain functions. Although there are many, many apps available for our current devices, the shape of our smartphones and tablets have remained rectangular.

Project leader Anne Roudaut, a researcher at the University of Bristol in the UK, outlined her team’s developments in a paper published this week for the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). One of the designs transforms a smartphone into the shape of a gaming controller, with its edges folding downward to allow for more comfortable two-thumb playing. Another caves inward like an origami flower, shielding the display from the view of strangers so that the user can have some privacy.

“In the future, all mobile devices should change shape so that form factor better fits functionality,” Roudaut said Monday in Paris, where she presented her team’s paper at the annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI). “Such shape-shifting devices would allow software makers to cater their applications to specific physical configurations. We should all be able to go into an app store, download an application, and that application should come with its own form factor,” Roudaut continued.

The devices are years away from the consumer market, and still have to overcome some technological limitations. For example, they would require thinner and more powerful batteries, and they are also incapable of being presented in high definition. One design sews wooden tiles together with “shape memory alloys” that bend when jolted with an electric current. Touching any corner of the display causes it to automatically fold upward, transforming it into a box-like shape.

The other prototype uses “home-educated” shape memory alloys to fold the device into a cylindrical form, creating a more console-like configuration. According to Roudaut, its name derives from the fact that it can be programmed to morph into a specific form. “You can actually train the material—you can educate the material to create a different shape,” Roudaut said.

She notes that this capability could be used to turn a smartphone into a stress ball or to create different physical keyboards, though its future ultimately rests in the hands of developers. “If we can give developers the tools to experiment, they may come up with many more uses—just like what Apple did with the App Store.”

Source: The Verge