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Shape-Shifting Touch Tech

Picture an iPad that goes beyond traditional functions—with a surface that morphs and deforms, enabling 3D designs, interactive haiku, and even virtual hand-holding. This vision is the brainchild of engineers from the University of Colorado Boulder. In their latest study, they’ve unveiled a groundbreaking shape-shifting display that fits on a card table.

The display is constructed from a 10-by-10 grid of soft robotic “muscles,” which respond to external pressure and create various patterns. It boasts precision to generate scrolling text and speed to agitate a chemistry beaker filled with fluid.

Beyond its captivating potential, this technology brings a sensation often overlooked in the digital age—touch. While technology has progressed through text, audio, and video, touch has remained elusive.

The prototype builds on the foundation of Hydraulically Amplified Self-Healing Electrostatic (HASEL) actuators—a class of soft robots pioneered by a team led by Christoph Keplinger, formerly an assistant professor at CU Boulder. Although the display is not yet ready for the market, the researchers foresee it leading to sensory gloves for virtual gaming and smart conveyor belts that can undulate to sort objects.

The project’s origin lies in the pursuit of synthetic organs for medical applications. The team’s focus on developing “squishy organs” from silicone-like materials led to the creation of the tabletop display—a sizeable game board with 100 individual HASEL actuators.

The actuator’s magnetic sensors allow for interactive activities, such as drawing on the surface with a magnetic wand. Notably, the display outperforms other smart tablets, offering enhanced speed and compactness.

The researchers are currently working on increasing the display’s resolution by shrinking the actuators to achieve finer details. They envision rendering articles as Braille on phone screens or designing gloves that provide a tactile experience in virtual reality.

Furthermore, the display’s silent operation is a remarkable feat—nearly noiseless actuators contribute to a peaceful user experience. As this shape-shifting technology continues to evolve, it holds vast potential to redefine human-computer interaction and revolutionize the world of touch-sensitive surfaces.