Wearable tech you can bend and stretch

Daniel Xu with sensor keyboard
Daniel Xu with sensor keyboard

A tiny sheet of rubber is breaking new ground in the technology industry – although this isn’t a typical sheet of rubber. Smart, soft and stretchable sensors mean dielectric elastomer can offer a brand new type of human machine interface, with the potential to be used as a wearable keyboard for AV control.

Developed by scientists at the University of Auckland, dielectric elastomer incorporates “stretch sensors that are like rubber bands with Bluetooth” and can be used to sync with body movement while transmitting real-time motion feedback to a mobile or tablet. The lightweight rubber is versatile in its uses, including smart garments and interactive gesture controllers in motion capture. The material’s ability to flex and stretch ensures significant durability for everyday use, with the possibility of damage kept to a minimum.

The rubber has so far been used to create a streamlined, programmable keyboard prototype with nine keys similar to a touchscreen setup. The keyboard has been constructed from two sensing layers orientated 90 degrees apart within a single laminated structure. This structure takes advantage of their mechanical coupling, while also providing an electrical separation.

Not only is the sensor keyboard flexible by touch, but mechanically too, with scope to easily customise the product to a variety of number and key layouts to suit the user, without the need for extra wires or hardware updates. The product’s design incorporates a small number of sensors, wires and connections for ease of use and preserving the softness of DE sensors.

Reflecting on the potential of the rubber, author of the product’s research paper, Daniel Xu, stated that the thin sheet or rubber “can be wrapped around any object to turn it into a keyboard.”

Company StretchSense has since been established from the University research team to bring the technology to market.