Shaping the future of smartphones

Researchers develop cutting-edge technology with a phone that changes shape to alert users

The phone uses an electrophoretic display in order to alert users.
The phone uses an electrophoretic display in order to alert users.

Queen’s University is now the home of a revolutionary innovation in smartphone technology.

Researchers have created the MorePhone, a curling smartphone that changes shape when the user receives calls, text messages and other updates.

Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab (HML), told the Journal via email that the phone includes shape memory, something never before seen in phone technology.

“The phone uses a Plastic Logic [a British firm] flexible electrophoretic display with a substrate that has shape memory alloys in them. As a voltage gets placed on the alloys, they contract, curling the body of the flexible smartphone,” he said.

An electrophoretic display can be understood as a kind of electronic paper. Devices such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony e-reader use similar technology. Shape memory alloy can essentially “remember” its original shape. It’s this that allows the phone to change its form and then return back to its original appearance.

The user sees the phone changing shape, alerting them whenever they receive an update. According to Vertegaal, the average smartphone user typically won’t notice if someone is contacting them unless they’re holding their phone.

“After smartphones go flexible, this will provide a new means for users to notify each other. This provides an alternative solution for visual notification in silent mode,” Vertegaal said.

Vertegaal said he believes that this technology could eventually evolve to the point where a user will be able to feel the physical change of the phone in their pocket, alerting them. He said that users tend to prefer a visual notification, as they often want immediate notice that they are being contacted.

Along with the rest of the team, which included Queen’s researchers António Gomes and Andrea Nesbitt, Vertegaal helped develop the very first flexible smartphone two years ago with the intention for it to go beyond hand-held usage. Leading up to the MorePhone, they created PaperTab, a flexible tablet PC, as well as the TeleHuman, a holographic videoconferencing system.

“We look into the future of interactive devices, designing solutions for users 10 to 15 years from now. We subsequently engineer the systems and perform user studies to verify their usability,” Vertegaal said.

Vertegaal said he conducts these studies by asking a group of approximately 15 people to use the devices. They then measure the devices’ performance during these trials.

In order to fund research, the team received federal grants that were administered by Queen’s. Their laboratory, meanwhile, was funded specifically by the University. Vertegaal said the University’s contribution was “substantial.”

Looking towards the future of this technology, Vertegaal said he believes it will be used by developers.

“It creates an [idea] in the minds of future developers, who will, when the time is ready, adopt it,” he said. “So far the HML has a great track record in terms of influencing the smartphone world.”

“Samsung has already announced a flexible smartphone platform called Youm. They are most likely to adopt this.”

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