Truly Transparent Trinkets

7/9/2012 9:11:18 AM

Gareth Halfacree looks at the latest mobile hardware.

Just what would it take to make a completely transparent mobile device, as screen in sci-fi flicks?

A common trick to make everyday gadgets seem futuristic is to make them transparent, flexible – or both. However, just how close are we to humble smartphones echoing those used by billionaire alcoholic inventor-cum-superhero Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, or the disposable origami phone of Ultraviolet? Closer than you think.

Stage 1: the display

Description: The see-through phone: ridiculous or prescient? Plastic-backed, flexible displays are already possible

The see-through phone: ridiculous or prescient? Plastic-backed, flexible displays are already possible

The display is the first part of smartphone that you see. Traditional displays use a solid background to either reflect the light of a backlight system, or to reflect ambient light – as with electronic paper displays such as E Ink.

They don’t have to though. Samsung’s display arm has been showing off a large-scale transparent display based on organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology for a while, creating a 46in model designed for retail environments – including fridges with animated displays through which the product is visible.

The technology isn’t limited to large-scale displays either. Little-known heads-up display specialist Vuzix was present at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year with a prototype for a display that could integrate with eyeglasses, providing a virtual overlay in full colour.

Nor is the technology new: in 2009, LG showed off a prototype active matrix OLED (AMOLED) displays at the FPD Japan show; it had an impressive 15in diagonal and offered the same full-motion experience as a standard PC monitor. Although the prototype lacked brightness and contrast, the technology has now significantly improved.

Description: Atmel XSense Touch Sensors

Atmel XSense Touch Sensors

So transparency is achievable with today’s technology, but what about flexibility? We can again look to Samsung for a clue: back in 2011, the company demonstrated a flexible AMOLED display aimed specifically at smartphones. Using a bendable circuit substrate and ditching the traditional glass, the company demonstrated a bright and clear high-resolution display that could be curved back on itself – and even hit with a sledgehammer – with no ill effects. Recently, LG has done the same with its electronic paper displays.

Even touch sensitivity, a requirement of modern smartphones, is no barrier these days. Atmel, creator of microcontrollers, memory and touch components for computer systems, recently unveiled a touch sensor dubbed XSense. Based on a flexible film, an XSense panel can be applied to any surface – including one of Samsung’s aforementioned flexible displays – and curved to almost any angle, while reducing component costs and decreasing the weight of the handset.

Stage 2: the electronics

So a flexible, transparent display is possible – but that isn’t all you need. Behind the screen is a dizzying array of system-on-chip processors, memory modules, circuits and wires, but these can also me made invisible.

Researchers from Rice University, speaking at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, claim to have created memory chips that can be folded, exposed to blisteringly high temperatures and soaked in water – all without a single lost bit. Better yet, the chips are transparent and can be stacked in a 3D array to cram more data into a smaller area.

The technology isn’t quite perfected yet. ‘Generally, you can’t see a bit of memory, because it’s too small, ‘explains James Tour, who runs the lab. ‘But silicon itself isn’t transparent – if the density of the circuits is high enough, you’re going to see it. ‘As a starting point, however, Tour’s work is impressive, and if memory chips can be transparent, so too can processors and other integrated circuits. It may take a while but, unlike the warp drive, it’s easy to see how we could get there.

Description: The new type of memory could combine with the likes of transparent electrodes developed at Rice for flexible touchscreens and transparent integrated circuits and batteries developed at other labs

The new type of memory could combine with the likes of transparent electrodes developed at Rice for flexible touchscreens and transparent integrated circuits and batteries developed at other labs

You can mount transparent memory chips onto transparent circuitry too, thanks to work carried out by the University of work carried out of the University of Cambridge on inkjet-printed circuits. By augmenting the conductive polymers added to the ink with graphene-everyone’s favourite nano-meterial-researchers led by Andrea Ferrari were able to create a material that can be printed on any surface, including transparent and flexible plastics.

Coupled with clear plastic casing and a transparent screen, you’re left with a smartphone that you can bend, fold, and see right through. Well, almost.

Stage 3: the battery

Behind the display and the electronics is arguably the most important part of any smartphone: the battery. But how do you make a phone’s battery, with all its chemicals and worryingly corrosive components, disappear? Once again, we turn to science – specifically, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Stanford University scientists Yuan Yang and Yi Cui.

Description: Yuan Yang believes he’s cracked the secret of a flexible, invisible battery

Yuan Yang believes he’s cracked the secret of a flexible, invisible battery

Working on the principle that the human eye is incapable of resolving objects smaller than 50 microns, Yang and Cui created a mesh-like framework for battery electronics where the grid is 35 microns wide. The result is that light passes through the transparent gaps between the gridlines, while the gridlines themselves are too small to see.

It took the application of polydimethylsiloxane, a transparent material more commonly associated with plastic surgery and contact lenses, along with the creation of a modified gel electrolyte that could act as a separator between electrodes, but the pair successfully created a prototype with 62 per cent transparency. Even with three cells stacked on one another, the prototype still offers around 60 per cent transparency in visible light.

Better still, the use of the rubbery material PDMS means that the battery is very flexible. Mounted to a graphene-based printed circuitboard populated with a transparent integrated circuits and behind a transparent, flexible OLED-based display, it could be possible to create to see-through smartphone that bends into whatever shape you desire.

The reality

All the above prototypes, products and research have emerged over the past couple of years, but it could be a long time before they’re used in real-world products. This isn’t to say that companies haven’t tried, however.

Perhaps the first attempt at a ‘transparent’ smartphone was the LG GD900 Crystal, released in 2009. Designed around a slider-style layout, the top half of the phone was fairly standard; however, the keypad, which came out from under the display in portrait mode, was a glowing see-through matrix of buttons. The GD 900 wasn’t a huge success, however. Since then, companies have shied away from transparency as a gimmick, preferring to sell their devices based on slimness, screen size of raw computational power.

Description: Asus Eee Pad MeMO

Asus Eee Pad MeMO

The most recent attempt to bring back transparency was the Asus Eee Pad MeMO, an Android-based 7in tablet with a Bluetooth-connected ‘puck’ that enables the device to be controlled wihle it’s in a bag. While it’s low-resolution and monochrome, the puck’s display is clearly transparent – and it has an eye-catching design.

There’s still plenty of work to be carried out before a truly transparent smartphone can be made. Work on flexible and transparent displays needs to be combined to create one with the best features of both, while the transparent battery needs further development before it can rival the efficiency and cost of traditional battery.

The chips will need to become see-through too, and while Tour’s research shows this is possible, it will be a while before a dense system-on-chip, such as Nvidia’sTegra 3 or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4, can be made see-through.

It’s a direction in which researchers are heading, however, and it could bear fruit in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps the minds behind Stark’s impressive gadget – which was actually a solid piece of glass with a 3D-printed plastic frame, with all the user interface elements added by computer – weren’t too far from the truth.

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