New Canadian tech enables video clip to play on your Coke can

Suppose you had a display that could be wrapped around a pop can, shaped into a sphere or even worn like a shirt? What would you do with it?

That’s what researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. are exploring.

The researchers, from the University’s Human Media Laboratory, aren’t building the flexible displays all by themselves.

A number of others are working on that and such devices – which they call organic user interfaces for their use of organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology.

And these morphing devices are nearing reality, says Roel Vertegaal, associate professor of human-computer interaction at Queen’s and director of the Human Media Lab.

For instance, Vertegaal’s group is simulating the flexible displays with a sophisticated video system that can track an object’s movement and keep a projector focused on it as it moves.

In a darkened room on the Queen’s campus in Kingston, Ont., one of the lab’s researchers picks up an ordinary soft-drink can that has been painted white, with four small tracking devices attached. Electronic gear ranged along the other side of the room detects it and the white surface turns to the projected label of a Coca-Cola can.

The tracking technology allows the label to remain in place – more or less – as he moves the can around. Then a full-motion video clip starts playing in a window on the can.

Vertegaal says he doesn’t mean to suggest soft-drink cans of the future will double as video players. The cans cost less than five cents each to produce, he says, so incorporating a video display into a pop can would have to cost less than a penny per can to be commercially viable, and that’s unlikely.

The demo just aims to make the point that flexible displays could be incorporated in a wide range of everyday objects.

Another demo shows a more practical application. The team bought an ordinary globe from a toy store and painted it white, like the pop can. Now they project on it the image of a globe. A hand gesture causes the globe to turn, just as if the image were really on its surface.

That’s all this basic demo can do, but Vertegaal suggests the next step – in response to a hand gesture – probably a spreading of the fingers like on an iPhone – the map image would zoom like a Google Maps satellite view.

Here’s where the future flexible display’s ability to change shape comes in. As the map zooms in to a smaller area, the surface should get flatter. A flexible display wrapped around an inflated core could do that.

The beauty of the globe display is twofold, Vertegaal says.

One, it’s easy to share – you can turn the globe to show an area to someone else, for instance.

Second, a globe is actually the only way to display a world map accurately – the traditional Mercator projection in world maps makes regions closer to the poles appear larger than they are relative to tropical regions (another version called the Peters projection breaks the map into slices to preserve proportions).

Flexible displays might also be incorporated in clothing. T-shirts with ever-changing slogans are one possible application, and of course advertising comes to mind. But there might be more serious uses. Human Media Lab researcher Phil Horwitz suggests patients in hospitals might have vital health information displayed on their hospital gowns or blankets so doctors wouldn’t have to thumb through charts.

In another demo, Vertegaal shows how an electronic design workbench using flexible display technology could allow engineers to pick components from a menu and attach them to a three-dimensional model – essentially a block of Styrofoam covered with flexible display material. Picking parts from a screen with a hand gesture, he adds them to a plain white block to create a mockup of an iPod.

In the June issue of the journal Communications of the ACM, published by the Association for Computing Machinery, Vertegaal and media lab researcher David Holman outline these projects and other possible uses for flexible displays as part of a special section on organic user interfaces.

Vertegaal expects the first flexible e-book readers to appear within a year, and predicts flexible screens will overtake flat screens in the market in 15 to 20 years “unless we run out of oil – which is conceivable – because all these things are made out of oil.”

“This is not short-term change,” agrees Carmi Levy, vice-president of strategic consulting at AR Communications in Toronto. “This is long-term change.” But Levy says the work at Queen’s is well timed because flexible displays are poised to become reality. Today’s displays, he says, “are fairly fragile, expensive and power hungry, and that limits where we can use them”

Levy says flexible displays would reduce worries about dropping electronic devices, and their ability to change shape will eliminate limits they place on miniaturization.

You could, for instance, have a touch screen the size of an ordinary sheet of paper that could be rolled up and slipped into a pocket. “We’re going to go back to the scroll,” Vertegaal observes.

The Human Media Lab hopes soon to embark on a research project with Sony Corp. and follow up its simulations by working with real flexible display technology. And in case there’s any need to draw attention to the role of Canadian researchers in the technology’s development, “we’re not hung up on the Coke can,” Vertegaal says. “it could be a Tim Horton’s cup.”

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