There’s a shape for that? Researchers are working on shape-shifting smartphones

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Have you ever been in that situation, where you’re at a store, ready to make an impulse purchase, but before you do it you have to check your bank account to make sure you’ve got enough to cover it? So you pull out your phone, but then you have to hold it at just the right angle so you can see your screen while you look at your top-secret information.

What if your smartphone could help you out with that? According to The Engineer, researchers at Bristol University are working on just that. Called morphees, these devices would not just be shape shifters or flexible, but their shapes would change automatically, based on which app or function the user is accessing.

For example, if pulling up a banking app, the top half of the phone could bend upward so the screen faces the user and the keypad is easy to see. Playing a game? The two ends of the phone could curl up to help give users a better grip.

So far, six different prototypes have been created, but the two most promising are the ones that use dielectric electro active polymers (DEAPs) and shape memory alloys (SMAs). The former of the two can best be described as flexible plastic. When two electrodes create an electric field, it causes the plastic to squeeze. The former of the two works with metallic materials that can bent into various shapes and, when heated, returns to its original form.

The group has been experimenting with various materials for constructing these devices. Paper used on a DEAP advice was flexible but not very strong; another was created stitching wood together with SMA wires; the speed and curvature of this one made it a successful model.

The next step? The folks at Bristol University need to figure out the phone shapes that will be the most effective for users, and come up with a way to make flexible parts – namely batteries – that will work with the devices. The group will be presenting its work thus far at this week’s CHI 2013 conference, which focuses on human-computer interaction.

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