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Shape-Changing Capability Developed for Mobile Devices

A Morphee prototype using projection and tracking on wood tiles

A Morphee prototype using projection and tracking on wood tiles that change their position with shape-memory alloy wires (University of Bristol)

Computer scientists at University of Bristol in the U.K. developed the ability for mobile devices made with flexible materials to change their shape to better fit their uses at the moment. The team from Bristol’s Interaction and Graphics lab is scheduled today to present a paper on what they call Morphees at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris.

A Morphee-enabled device, for example, could curl one side upward while an operator keys in a password, to protect the screen from view by passers-by. An app could also form the device into a soft rubber ball, to squeeze to relieve stress while on the go. Or a device could take the shape of a game console, after invoking a game app on the device.

Morphees are based on a geometric model to represent shapes from straight lines in the form of a set of control points on a grid. The actions of the grid are in turn governed by 10 different factors, such as area, granularity, curvature, porosity, and stretchability. A Morphee-enabled mobile device can then take a shape based on the interaction of these factors on the grid.

The Morphees team, led by Bristol researcher Anne Roudaut, proposes six implementation strategies for Morphees, and developed prototypes for some of them. Most of these methods use shape memory alloy metals that remember their original shapes before deforming, or dielectric electroactive polymers — polymer plastics that change their size or shape in response to an electric field caused by two electrodes.

Most strategies incorporate polymer components with combinations of tiny motors and wires or springs made of shape memory alloys. Another strategy adds shape memory alloy tiles to wood tiles. The researchers then evaluated each strategy against the 10 factors in the geometric model on which Morphees are based. No single implementation method is optimal for the 10 factors, with each strategy showing particular strengths and weaknesses.

“The interesting thing about our work is that we are a step towards enabling our mobile devices to change shape on-demand,” says Roudat. “Imagine downloading a game application on the app-store and that the mobile phone would shape-shift into a console-like shape in order to help the device to be grasped properly.”

The following video tells more about Morphees and demonstrates some of the prototypes.

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