What If Your Smartphone Could Shape-Shift into a Stress Ball?

Imagine your phone physically transforming into a gamepad...or a stress ball.

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Admit it, you’ve squeezed your smartphone ungently at one time or another, if only to keep it from slipping out of your grip and going all Humpty Dumpty on the floor. Not exactly malleable, is it? But what if it could be?

Meet “Morphees,” mobile devices capable of changing shape on demand, sort of like the prototype flexible display technology in stuff like “plastic electronic newspaper” only much more functionally versatile. Morphees are the work of researchers at the University of Bristol, U.K. and the German Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrücken, Germany. Their goal: to introduce what they call “shape resolution” as a metric that we’d use alongside screen and touch resolution, only in this case, to capture the shifting physical geometric capabilities of a bona fide shape-changing device.

Imagine devices made of electro-active polymers (that is, materials activated or manipulated by electricity) as well as alloys with “shape memory.” The research team proposes building these as “self-actuated flexible mobile devices adapting their shapes on their own to the context of use in order to offer better affordances.” (The latter’s just a somewhat fancy way of describing devices that can turn into whatever you need for the task at hand.)

Take gaming. If you’re playing something like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for instance, you’re holding the smartphone’s screen sideways and gripping either end like a gamepad. That’s hardly ideal, since smartphones lack the ergonomic depth of game controllers. With an exoskeletal Morphee shell, the ends might curl around to create gamepad-style handlebars, giving you a much better grip.

To make their case, the researchers created six prototypes to illustrate how Morphees might be used. They point out that the proliferation of shape-changing prototypes is creating a need for more specific metrics defining how these devices differ from one another, just as we today routinely differentiate between display types according to physical screen size, pixel count and density, refresh rate and so forth. Where do you start with something as hypothetically polymorphous as general geometry? The team chose 10 features derived from a mathematical model often used in computer-generated imagery to define curved surface shapes (the team says the model’s “able to describe most shapes”). Those 10 features: area, granularity, porosity, curvature, amplitude, zero-crossing, closure, stretchability, strength and speed.

In this “shape resolution” system, a Morphee would be able to download instructions that “embed a dedicated form factor” — essentially an app that tells the device what to change into in certain circumstances, say collapsing into a stress ball after your zillionth telepresence conference call involving the words “synergy,” “win-win,” “well-positioned” and “deliverables.”

In the video above, you can see the technology in action. The researchers demonstrate a few general (if crude) principles, like a wallet-style banking device that could fold in ways that might make it more difficult for prying eyes to see. Some of the devices use multiple materials in concert, too, like wood tiles stitched together with shape memory alloy wiring: tap near a tile and it folds in, origami-like. Others use shape memory alloy (as in the gamepad handlebar example described above) or electro-active polymer with (rather high) voltage.

All well and good, but obviously still very much a work in progress. As Phys.org notes, the team wants to build shapes of much higher resolution in the future, as well as fiddle with other “10 feature” areas like porosity and stretchability.

What do we want? Smartphones that can transform into self-actuated hilts that furnish sizzling plasma blades, of course.