An elastic touchscreen you can literally sink your fingers into

[From ExtremeTech]

Elastic touchscreen

An elastic touchscreen into which you can literally sink your fingers

By James Plafke on April 19, 2013

When touchscreens first became widespread on our mobile devices, the main complaint from touchscreen detractors was that it felt weird to poke at a flat surface rather than tactile buttons. Eventually, most of the mobile phone audience grew to either love or live with the flat touchscreen. Now, with an elastic touchscreen you can pull and poke, a project out of MIT’s Media Lab aims to put tactile sensation back into using your devices.

The stretchable touchscreen, dubbed Obake, was created by Dhairya Dand and Rob Hemsley, both of MIT’s Media Lab. The touchscreen basically amounts to an interactive display on top of an elastic surface. When you poke or pull at the display, depth cameras measure your movements and tell linear actuators to manipulate the elastic surface accordingly. So, if you make a pinch-and-pull motion, the depth cameras will measure it, then the linear actuators will make elastic stretch and protrude in such a way as if you’re pulling it. The surface doesn’t just create little mountains of stretched elastic; it can also create resistance if you, for example, push inward rather than pull outward.

The pair label Obake as a 2.5D interface, alluding to the 3D surface you can tug, but the 2D interface projected onto the surface.

Dand says that the reason why displays haven’t been able to escape the realm of 2D is due to the standard mouse-and-GUI combination to which we’re all so accustomed. Due to the nature of a mouse and the way it interacts with what we see on a screen, the setup can’t quite become 3D in any coherent manner. Dand explains that 3D interactive displays haven’t succeeded in the past because they attempt to apply gestures we’ve learned from 2D interfaces to an entirely new dimension. So, new gestures — created specifically for a 3D environment — needed to be generated; however, these gestures couldn’t be so foreign that users would feel lost. This is why the elastic surface was chosen, as we’re all familiar with manipulating elastic, and the gestures are similar in nature to the gestures touchscreens have made us comfortable with performing.

Rather than simply having our smartphone screens generate a little elastic mountain when we pinch and pull, Dand envisions some radical applications of the new technology. Dand provides the example of a toaster that stretches to allow for breads of different sizes, then after the bread is toasted, you can squeeze the toaster back into its normal shape. Currently, Obake can recognize a handful (pun intended) of gestures, from simple pinches and pokes, to compressing two areas of the elastic surface together. The system can even recognize what amounts to multitouch gestures; you can pull one area of the surface while pushing the other, and Obake can even recognize if you combine the two sections when you get them close enough to one another.

Of course, what we’re all thinking this surface can help us achieve is the mythical 3D topography map seen in so many forms of science fiction: the movie’s heroes standing around a table, planning an attack, when all of a sudden a physical 3D map of a cityscape rises from the center of the table. The above video even shows a user editing a map’s topography by drawing rivers and creating mountains.

We most likely won’t have an elastic touchscreen in our smartphones anytime soon, but Obake could certainly find its way into the tech scene as a peripheral for mapping or certain games. Perhaps an ambitious gamer will retrofit Stretch Panic! with Dand and Hemsley’s device.


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