On the bending edge of innovation

University District

Dr. Roel Vertegaal and his team from the Human Media Lab have made the first flexible wireless smartphone

The smartphone, named ReFlex, is the first wireless flexible phone of its kind.
The smartphone, named ReFlex, is the first wireless flexible phone of its kind.
Credit: 
Supplied by Human Media Lab

The Human Media Lab (HML) at Queen’s University has gone viral on YouTube once again with 800,000 views on a video of the first flexible, wireless, full-colour and high-resolution smartphone.

The smartphone — named ReFlex — incorporates multi-touch functions with bending gestures, allowing users to operate applications by bending and physically manipulating the phone.

HML, a Queen’s research laboratory that specializes in Human-Computer interaction and user interfacing, has been working on developing a wireless flexible smartphone since 2004. After 12 years of development, HML has deemed the ReFlex smartphone ready for commercial use.

ReFlex’s bend feature is made possible by two types of bend input mappings — position control and rate control — that allows the phone to sense and simulate forces from interactions with the user. When using apps on the phone, a user experiences highly realistic physical simulations — such as the phone recoiling while playing Angry Birds.

Dr. Roel Vertegaal, a professor at Queen’s and the director of HML, told The Journal that no other company or university has created a fully operational wireless smartphone with twisting screen. Previous versions of a flexible smartphone have always been heavily tethered to a computer, he said.

“If your phone is so thin that it’s going to bend when you sit on it, you might as well make that a feature ... you can use that bend as an input feature.”

Vertegaal said ReFlex’s ability to bend allows users to access a third dimension and realistically interact with the 3D objects on the phone.

Though the project had been ongoing since 2004, Vertegaal said a barrier to the phone’s creation was the unavailability of flexible screen technology. HML waited six years until they received their first flexible screen from the U.S. military.

According to Vertegaal, the ReFlex team consisted of himself, Masters students, PhD students and a post-doctorate student.

“The students are responsible for a lot of the building of the phone, the apps, the experimentation of the phone, the empirical work, helping write the paper and all the scientific work.”

Vertegaal joked that ReFlex has received a hundred to a thousand times more likes than he’s ever had on a Facebook share before. Though the video of the ReFlex phone has gained 800,000 views on YouTube, Vertegaal said the phone is only HML’s third most viral invention. Its paper phone and paper tablet demonstration videos gained more than 2 million views each.

“It wasn’t quite as much as a surprise as Paper Phone, but it’s also much slicker and closer to production. It’s the first one with true apps and fast motion, colour video and all that.”

Vertegaal estimates that wireless flexible smartphone technology could be in the hands of consumers as soon as 2019. He added that the video of ReFlex on their YouTube channel is actually five years old and the phone is basically product-ready.

“We need to stop [experimentation] and business needs to takes over. It’s a smooth enough as a prototype that it’s clear now that it can go into production,” he said.

“I’m proud that we’ve basically taken it all the way from paper prototypes with projection to the real thing.”

Corrections

February 26, 2016

The HML waited six years, not 12, to receive their first flexible screen from the U.S. military.

The Journal regrets the error.

February 29, 2016

Dr. Roel Vertegaal said the video of the phone received two to three orders of magnitude more likes than he's received on Facebook before (meaning a hundred to a thousand times more), not two or three more likes than he's received before.The article has been edited to state that it received a "hundred to a thousand times more likes" for clarity.

The Journal regrets the error.

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