A company called Strategic Polymers has just announced (and demonstrated to us) a handful of prototype devices that use electromechanical polymers to generate pushable buttons, haptic feedback zones, and even speakers on cellphones and computer peripherals on demand. It's amazing.
Electro mechanical polymers (EMPs) are thin, flat, flexible pieces of plastic that you can run an electric current through. When you do, they exhibit all sorts of crazy behavior:
Deformation:The EMP deforms upwards by up to three millimeters to form a pushable, force detecting button that can be pushed like 10 million times without wearing out.
Vibration: The EMP vibrates silently at a range of frequencies, putting haptic feedback into a zone only as large at the EMP itself. Your phone can already vibrate of course, but an array of EMPs can create vibrating "pixels."
Sounds: Vibrating the EMP at audible frequencies creates sounds. Any sounds. Beeps, buzzes, even pop songs.
Now, it's not like you just pick one of these things for your electro mechanical polymer to do: it can do any one of them, interchangeably. So for example, if you had a cell phone with an EMP array on it, it could form a bunch of different buttons, it could create discrete haptic feedback touch zones, or it could form a 3D directional speaker system.
All of this sounds like a bit of a gimmick, but it totally works. Strategic Polymers is looking for commercial partners, but the tech is not only ready to go, but cheap and easy to integrate into electronics, and as proof of this, they had a couple prototypes to show off what the EMPs can do. Check 'em out in the gallery below, and we've scheduled a private demo with Strategic Polymers, so we'll be bringing you more details (along with some video) later in the week.