ShapeTape flexes for automotive market

Researchers at the University of Toronto are working with New Brunswick company Measurand Inc. on a technology that may someday allow us to build a cars out of tape.

ShapeTape, that is.

ShapeTape, a slender length

of narrow spring steel which can be bent, curved and draped over other objects, is also a computer input device. Working in conjunction with a special software application, ShapeTape’s tiny fibre optic sensors relay their positions to a computer, which then picks up an image of the tape’s actual shape in space.

While other modeling and design tools often work primarily based on either physical or computer principles, ShapeTape attempts to do a little of both.

“”If you think about the continuum, on one hand you’ve got the physical world where people have clay and sand, wood, foam, etc., and they manipulate that using a variety of tools — chisels, power tools, etc. On the other hand are these computer and design tools which essentially forget completely about the physical world and do things right on the computer,”” says Ravin Balakrishnan, the project’s leader at the University of Toronto.

Computer modeling, according to Balakrishnan, is “”a very bottom up process. Whereas the physical world is kind of a top down process where you whittle it down. We’ve tried to situate the work we’ve done in the middle of that continuum. We want the leverage of the computer to do the complicated math, but the human being or the designer is able to utilize the skills they learned in art or industrial design school and have the physicality of that. We’re trying to find a sweet spot where we took the best parts of everything.””

While ShapeTape is still early in its development — the team is just now starting to experiment with manipulating surfaces as well as curves — the ultimate goal is for the device to become one of many specialized tools for computer modelers and industrial designers in the future.

ShapeTape would be particularly useful in the design of electronic appliances and automobiles. Rather than creating car’s primary curves by connecting two points on a screen, for example, ShapeTape would allow the designer to actually bend something in space, and make fine-tuned adjustments with their own hands.

“”It’s kind of the broader agenda of the research community to go beyond the traditional mouse and keyboard when we interact with computational technologies,”” says Balakrishnan.

The device, which Balakrishnan envisions as being part of an industrial design software package in the next 10 to15 years, currently relies on its custom testing software to operate.

Warren Shiau, a software analyst with IDC Canada, says ShapeTape’s potential will be contingent on what kind of relationships the developers can build with existing products in the industry.

“”The researchers would have to come to OEM agreements with established engineering or design software vendors — and it just looks so exciting that I can’t imagine that they’ll have a problem generating interest from those vendors,”” said Shiau, who added, “”When the potential applications for new software cross through different industries, generally you’ll find that the best approach for a new technology in terms of marketability is to go to one of those larger vendors who sell across different engineering disciplines, rather than trying to start a business from scratch.””

For now, Balakrishnan doesn’t see ShapeTape taking over the world; he sees it as a specialized tool which will be the best in its class.

“”In design and 3D graphics software the tasks are all very different, but everyone uses the same input devices regardless of what the task is. It’s a one-size fits all solution that doesn’t do anything at 100 per cent capacity but does everything at 80 per cent well,”” he says.

That missing 20 per cent is where ShapeTape hopes to bend into its niche. Look out, mouse.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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