New touch screens hold key to revolutionary devices

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Tablets that could bend without cracking would provide parents with more durable tools for their children. Credit: aperturismo via Compfight cc

The technology of the future will mostly be defined by curves, not the squares and rectangles that have given form to most screen-based devices since they were invented.

Key to this design-change taking root is the wholesale adoption of touch screens that won’t break or crack when bent and twisted.

This is what happens with indium tin oxide, or ITO, the thin but brittle layer on touch screens that communicates actions based on taps and swipes.

The fragility of this material is why it needs to be surrounded by a rigid framework that limits what can be accomplished in terms of product design

But researchers are developing flexible transparent conductors that will someday significantly alter the look and feel of all kinds of devices.

The technology at minimum will allow manufacturers to produce smartphones and tablets that are thinner, lighter and curved for the best ergonomics.

The applications are nearly endless, said Bill Jackson, CEO of Sinovia Technologies, an early-stage company that is working in this area.

Jackson envisions mobile devices that can fold in half, a feature that would make smartphone screens twice as large when opened up.

There are also efforts underway to provide the military with five-inch squares that can unfold like a map and function as a portable solar panel that soldiers can use to charge devices on the battlefield, he said.

Sinovia, which is based in California, is backed in part by the National Science Foundation, which awarded the company a grant to develop a highly efficient light based on the flexible film it is trying to take to market.

The company’s technology uses silver nanowires that are invisible to the human eye and one one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair.

It’s one of several different approaches to creating a transparent conductor that is also flexible.

“There are a number of companies chasing this opportunity,” Jackson acknowledged.

Some scientists are experimenting with graphene, which is composed of pure carbon and is just one-atom thick.

Sinovia, however, believes it’s on the right track.

“We’re really believing that silver nanowires are the best process for this short and long term,” Jackson said. “Silver is a highly conductive material.”

Cambrios Technologies Corporation, which bills itself as “the leader in nanotechnology-based solutions for the transparent and flexible conductor markets,” is also banking on those little silver strands.

It’s already partnered with LG to create an all-in-one touch-screen computer that’s available in Japan and Korea.

Sinovia is seeking similar partnerships that will take its lab project to a wide audience.

Jackson and company President Whitney Gaynor, who began developing Sinovia’s technology while perusing her doctorate at Stanford University, have been staffing booths at tech conferences to find the right deal.

The work isn’t easy. Jackson said he hasn’t been paid in a year and a half, but he’s looking forward to payoff — financial and otherwise.

“The biggest benefit will be the satisfaction of taking a piece of technology and growing a company from scratch,” he said.

Nick Clunn is an award-winning journalist who has worked for several websites and daily newspapers, including The Record in New Jersey. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University. Follow him @NickClunn.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
Tags: BYOD,Gadgets & Devices,Technology
  • Mark Cathcart

    Interestingly the original IBM 3270 screens had rounded corners, even on the keyboards. It was only the cheap manufacturing processes of the 1980/1990′s that forced us into sharp angle corners.