Never mind Apple's curved devices — you can plunge your finger into a GHOST screen

A research group in Europe has created a way to make smartphone and computer screens malleable in order to render 3D objects


Whoopee! Apple is apparently "serious" about transitioning the screens used in its iPhone product line away from LCD "to one equipped with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens," according to a report in BusinessKorea that was then reported by Motley Fool and Patently Apple.

There are, in fact, some good reasons to follow this possible development — the original article cites an unnamed supplier — not only because the company in question is Apple, but because of the design potential this switch would mean. As Steve Symington at Motley Fool writes: "In addition to being slimmer, more power efficient, and providing better color saturation, accuracy, and brightness, plastic-based OLEDs can be made flexible, semitransparent, and virtually indestructible."

A look at GHOST

But for true excitement — at least in the smartphone screen realm — one must look at developments under way in another corner of the world.

An EU-funded research group Europe called GHOST (which stands for Generic, Highly-Organic Shape-Changing Interfaces) has released prototypes of the technology it has been working on since the project launched in 2013.

The project's concept was to build computer and mobile device interfaces through which humans could manipulate physical objects based on the advances made in deformable screens and ultrasound levitation technology.

But the group wasn't just thinking about the technology, complex as it is.

These objects, which — and this is the best way to describe it — seemingly come alive from their original 2D form, can then be manipulated in their 3D rendering.

"It's not only about deforming the shape of the screen, but also the digital object you want to manipulate, maybe even in mid-air," as GHOST coordinator Professor Kasper Hornbæk, of the University of Copenhagen, explained.

"Through ultrasound levitation technology, for example, we can project the display out of the flat screen. And thanks to deformable screens we can plunge our fingers into it."

Dancing bar charts; shape-shifting screens

The prototypes are fascinating.

One is called Emerge, which allows data in bar charts to be pulled out of the screen by fingertips. The data can then be reordered and broken down by column, row or individually, GHOST explained.

The researchers have also been working with "morphees," flexible mobile devices with lycra or alloy displays that bend and stretch according to use, Hornbaek says in a separate blog post.

"These can change shape automatically to form screens to shield your fingers when you type in a pincode, for example, or to move the display to the twists and turns of a game. And such devices can be enlarged in the hand to examine data closer and shrunk again for storing away in a case or pocket."

It's not a new concept, as you can see from this video uploaded about two years ago — although clearly the technology would be new to most consumers and most businesses as well.

Serious uses for serious users

Indeed, the immediate use cases of GHOST appear to be geared toward business and industry and the military. Proposed examples include surgeons practicing for delicate and complex surgery, businesses sketching out designs for a project and even the military plotting field maneuvers.

Even these concepts are five years off, especially any scenarios in which the screen is made larger to accommodate the 3D renderings, Hornbæk has said.

Is my phone alive?  

The admittedly more pedestrian uses would be for consumers — certainly I can think of a number of instances in which a suddenly larger smartphone screen or television set would be useful. (Hello, Netflix? I would like to upgrade to your premium membership.)

Eventually the tech will filter down to the consumer level. When it does, expect to see people anthropomorphize their devices even more than they do now.

As it is, we sleep with our phones and one in three of us would rather give up sex than our smartphones.

Hornbaek has come to similar conclusions after a study of the reactions of more than 100 people to the simulated shape-changing phones. The researchers asked if these phones were perceived to be alive, he writes.

The answers were not that straightforward, according to an abstract of the study.

"Shapes that have previously been used for notifications were rated the least urgent; the degree of shape change was found to impact experience more than type of shape change. The experience of shape change was surprisingly complex: hedonic quality were inversely related to urgency, and some shapes were perceived as ugly, yet useful."

Still, you get the sense that some of the people were itching to say, "Yes, they do seem alive!"

Aren't touchable holograms vaguely familiar?

For some, GHOST and its work is vaguely familiar. That is because the project has already had team members leave to form for-profit companies to use variations of this technology.

Namely, the U.K. company Ultrahaptics is a spinoff from the University of Bristol, which is one of the participants. It has created a device that uses ultrasonic haptic technology to project the sensations, which people are able to feel.

GHOST is set to finish its work at the end of this year. It was, inarguably, an excellent run for a group that launched with a mere $2.1 million from the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies program.

Considering that the tactile computing market (or rather, haptic as it is also called) is predicted to be worth $7.5 billion by 2020, according to Global Industry Analysts, that $2.1 million should deliver a very nice return.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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