How graphene could revolutionise touchscreens

Smartphones and tablets have revolutionised all our lives. But for many, using touchscreens presents a myriad of problems. Graphene could help solve these issues.

Share 85% of Brits own a smartphone, but for many, using touchscreens can be a struggle. Click To Tweet Graphene force sensors could revolution digital art and create new types of musical instruments Click To Tweet 60% of over 65s have problems using touchscreens. Could graphene be the key to solving them? Click To Tweet

The prominence of consumer touchscreen devices has surged over the last few years. Smartphones, the most common touchscreen devices, are now owned by 85% of people in the UK.

While younger people are the most likely users of touchscreen technology, even in the 55+ age group, usage has increased from 29% to 71% over the last five years.

But many of these older users experience frequent problems with touchscreen technology. Nearly 60% of over 65s report age-related issues using smartphones and similar devices.

Dr Christian Berger explains some of the issues people face: “Things like having hand tremors, or a degraded sense of touch are big issues. Also, pressing something by accident and not being able to find your way back. Wanting to google something but ending up on the news, for example, can be a big problem”

It’s a huge issue. But Christian, along with PhD student Daniel Melendrez, think that graphene may provide a solution.

A graphene solution

With their company Atomic Mechanics, they are developing a thin, flexible, transparent film overlay that could help correct many people’s problems.

“What we’re proposing is an overlay that goes on top of your current cell phone.” Daniel explains.

The film will be a thin, flexible, transparent layer that will sit on top of your current device, not unlike screen protectors many people use today.

It will contain many tiny force sensors and will connect via Bluetooth and interact with the device using special software to make use of this force sensitivity.

One of the initial uses will be to limit the areas of the screen that can be pressed by a user to only those which they need to use for different applications. But longer term, Christian and Daniel envisage many different uses for their film overlay.

“The software will learn what the disability is. So, some people may be pushing too lightly, some people may be pushing too hard. Others may have a tremor and are constantly pressing slightly to the left of to the right. The aim is to use force input to learn what the disability is, and then correct for it.”

This could have huge benefits not only for elderly people, but also those with various disabilities which affect their touchscreen usage.

An award-winning idea

So promising is this technology, that Daniel and Christian were awarded the Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise Award earlier this year.

The award, set up and funded by Eli Harari, the founder of SanDisk, and his wife Britt, aims to support emerging technologies and applications of graphene with potential commercial uses through a £50,000 prize.

“The prize is fantastic”, Christian explains “it will help us move to the point where we’re ready to make a prototype.”

But it’s not just the monetary prize that will help Christian and Daniel. Having met Eli earlier this year, they received some fantastic advice.

“He’s very involved in micro-electronics, so he obviously knows what he’s talking about. It’s refreshing to meet someone who is a businessman, but also understands the science. He appreciates the struggle and all the work that’s ahead of us.” Christian says.

The award supports commercial uses of graphene, the world’s first 2D material which was first isolated in Manchester in 2004.

Graphene is crucial to Christian and Daniel’s work.

Why graphene?

We need a material that is flexible, transparent and conductive. In current touchscreens, the most common material is Indium Tin Oxide (ITO), but the problem with that is it is very brittle.” Christian says.

“For the next generation of electronic devices, people are moving towards these new nanomaterials, and for our uses, graphene seems to be the best candidate. It’s transparent, flexible, and extremely conductive. But unlike other candidate materials, it’s robust enough to withstand the significant stress applied to it in a force sensor.”

Working with graphene has always been a goal for Daniel. “When I heard about graphene in 2012, I said ‘I have to do something with this.’”

While the initial uses for their technology lies in smartphones and tablets, in the longer term, Christian and Daniel can see it being used in many other places, especially in digital arts and musical instruments.

With digital arts, for example, the current method of producing it is to use a graphics tablet. The tablet, which connects to your computer, allows you to input signals using a stylus with a force sensor in the tip.

This allows you to apply differing pressure to achieve different results, but only using that one tool.

What we want to do is to take that force sensor which is currently in the stylus, and instead put many of them into a transparent overlay.”

This frees the user up to use whatever tool they want. The overlay will be able to differentiate between brushes, or whatever other tool the user wants to use.

New musical instruments

And with art, comes music.

Christian says, “What’s really interesting is being able to input variable force for different instruments. There’s some really interesting new instruments based on force input, but we want to make something detached from a specific instrument that can be used for many different ones.”

“For example, you could have a drum kit overlaid onto a curved surface, you can tap along on a rolling pin if you’d like. For musicians it could open up a new way of not only making music, but performing it as well.”

Daniel and Christian have big plans for their company, and they believe that Manchester is the best place they could be to move forward.

“Manchester is where graphene was born.” Daniel says, “You’ve got all the people, researchers and facilities here.”

“We get fantastic support from the University as well.” Christian says, “It’s amazing to be here. We can get help from businessmen, accountants, legal help.”

The Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise Award is just one of the many ways donations are helping to translate cutting edge research into practical uses. Find out more about how donations can help spur on enterprise here at Manchester.

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