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Handhelds Hardware Technology

Flexible Computers in the Future? 229

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the bend-like-the-reed dept.
An anonymous reader writes "New Scientist is reporting on Sony bendable input devices. When computers become too small to be operated by buttons, how will we control them? The only option will be to gently bend them, according to engineers at Sony's Interaction Lab in Tokyo." The diagrams make it look like a warped Game Boy. Looks pretty cool, though.
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Flexible Computers in the Future?

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  • They've got this really bizarre idea over there, but they don't seem to have a realistic idea of how it would work in real life devices.

    Does anyone have any ideas?
  • possibilities.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ksp0704 (242246) on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:32AM (#6251325)
    what happens if you leave it in your pocket and sit on it and bend it? then where will you end up?

    FP!
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Probably in the wrong city. (the picture in the article refers to a GPS navigator).
    • by Cochonou (576531)
      Mhh ? I don't really see in which way the problem would be specific to bending devices. In my pocket, a device is as likely to bend as to be compressed (clicking on its eventual buttons).
      So it is just a matter of having a locking function or not...
  • or if cell phones can guess what I'm saying as I thumb-type words, why do I need to bend the phone?
    • besides, bending would take two hands right? yeah I'm too lazy to read the article. I figure by the time a computer with any decent complexity is smaller than a 5 or 10-pack of gum, almost all the space will be for the battery, and input will be external, from my voice or from a laptop/kiosk/laser-drawn-keyboard. Possibly all done wirelessly.
  • by Cappy Red (576737) <miketoon@ y a h o o .com> on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:33AM (#6251331)
    "Get Bent"

    However, if this is ever marketed with that slogan I'll be shocked and disgusted... and then try to weasel some money out of the deal.

    *honk*
  • by IICV (652597) on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:39AM (#6251372)
    If you take a normal piece of paper and bend it back and forth a few times, you'll find that it starts "remembering" where you bent it.

    Yes, I know they're small piezoelectric particles to generate voltage when compressed, but those can't last forever. The material of the card might start developing a memory if you bend it too much.

    However, this will be kickass if they can make them cheap enough. Imagine: walk up to a vending machine in an airport, buy a little credit-card sized game to occupy you during the flight, and throw it away when the battery runs out. Or have a book on the card - a novel and text output probably won't take up that much memory.

    • I would like to apologize for the above badly written piece of excrement. I really shouldn't post when I'm too tired to think straight. But hey, this is Slashdot. It's not like anyone's going to read either of these comments.
    • by achurch (201270) on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:55AM (#6251433) Homepage

      Imagine: walk up to a vending machine in an airport, buy a little credit-card sized game to occupy you during the flight, and throw it away when the battery runs out.

      And designing things to be thrown away is good practice?

    • by RPI Geek (640282) on Friday June 20, 2003 @02:11AM (#6251481) Journal
      Yes, I know they're small piezoelectric particles to generate voltage when compressed, but those can't last forever.

      You're halfway right.
      When a material is deformed by stretching, compressing, twisting, or bending (which is really a combination of stretching and compressing), there is a region called the elastic region where the material will return to its original size and shape when the force deforming it is released. Beyond the elastic region is the plastic region, where the material will remain deformed. If the material is deformed in such a way that the deformation never reaches the plastic region, the material(with a few exceptions) can be cycled (deformed and returned) infinitely without failing. The amount beyond the elastic region that the material is deformed determines how long the material will last. Think about bending a paper clip or a pencil in your hands.
      There's a whole field of study devoted to understanding this process better, and to make the existing equations fit the real world better.
      Any inaccuracies or typos are because I'm tired and it's late, feel free to correct me if you know what you're talking about.b
      • does the number of cycles have an effect on the time to failure even if the bending/twisting wouldn't normally cause plastic deformation?

        I'm sure I recall something like this in dealing with the lifetimes of pressure cylinders - the cylinder doesn't show exhibit plastic deformation, but it only has a finite number of cycles (i.e. number of times you can fill it and empty it)
        • Yes, it would. It's called fatigue failure.

          Been a while since I did out the equations, but basically, every time you stress an object above it's endurance limit, (aka fatigue limit) which is in its elastic region, you form microfractures. These microfractures propogate every time you stress the material.

          It's fairly easy to figure out the lifespan, from a ballpark figure, anyway. If you test the number of cycles to failure right at the endurance limit, for the most part, if you double the stress, you

    • This potential problem is what came to my mind immediately as well. However, I do not think it will be as large of a problem as it may at first seem.

      It seems, for example, that even bending the device once will result in *some* retention of that bent shape. This establishes what is minimally the initial lower threshold for registering an intentional 'bend'.

      However, consider even the common household rubber band. Even if stretched to two or three times its originally length repeatedly, while there will be
    • However, this will be kickass if they can make them cheap enough. Imagine: walk up to a vending machine in an airport, buy a little credit-card sized game to occupy you during the flight, and throw it away when the battery runs out.

      Yeah, just like self-destructing DVDs, disposable cell phones and god knows what are "kickass". I mean, who cares about the environment anyway, right?

  • by ruprechtjones (545762) <ruprechtjones@noSPAm.gmail.com> on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:41AM (#6251379) Homepage
    Quarter-bend to the left is "back", quarter-bend to the right is "forward". To close the browser window, just fold and put in your pocket. Rip the display in half to "view source".
  • at least eight buttons on that device - four either side.

    Are they suffering from NASA invention disorder - invent something then find a use for it? If so, they can first find a way to fix my bent MiniDisc player to fix itself.

    • Yeah, i don't see why you couldn't put buttons on this thing. If its too small for buttons, its too small to hold on to... having it be flexible so it won't break when you sit down with it in your pocket might be nice, but there's no need to eliminate buttons alltogether just because its possible.
  • When computers become too small to be operated by buttons, how will we control them? The only option will be to gently bend them, according to engineers at Sony's Interaction


    Nobody considered simple voice recognition?

    • Bender, Computer Operator.
    • by achurch (201270) on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:57AM (#6251444) Homepage

      Nobody considered simple voice recognition?

      No, they finally realized it would be really, really stupid (and noisy) to have everyone talking to their PDAs.

      • No, they finally realized it would be really, really stupid (and noisy) to have everyone talking to their PDAs.


        Or maybe they realised that the current crop of PDAs don't have enough grunt to do Voice recognition.


        You never heard of a throat mic/earphones?

        • You never heard of a throat mic/earphones?

          Well, I have heard of cell phones with sensitive microphones (say, just about any modern model), and yet every day I see (hear) people on trains yelling into them. And even if people knew how to use throat mikes properly, talking is still talking, still annoying, and still going to draw eyes (and ears).

          • > talking is still talking, still annoying, and still going to draw eyes (and ears). ...which pisses me off. I know how to use a cell phone politely (read: not screaming into it), yet people still give me dirty looks & shit. I speak more softly into a Cell phone than I would if the person was actually in front of me, yet I'm still considered rude. Just goes to prove my point that people will always find a reason to hate you and think they are a bigger person, whether they are justified or not.
        • "You never heard of a throat mic/earphones?"

          Interesting.

          Actually, I hadn't thought about that. Of course I understand how and why they work, but it hadn't come to mind.

          Just the second link on a Google search produced such a device for "tactical" use, which, it says, is capable of clearly pickup up even a whisper here [rahq.com]

          While these are rather expensive, perhaps the price would be significantly lower if mass produced at the rate mobile phones and PDAs are.

          That would be quite nifty.

    • Voice recognition is nowhere near as capable as a mouse, keyboard, or even 'bending' for something such as gaming. Imagine playing half-life by having to say "strafe left, start shooting, duck, strafe right, stop shooting, reload, walk, stafe left, shoot, run right"... and thats not even aiming.

      The only way voice recognition could handle a situation like that would to have higher level commands (almost like what you'd find in movies) that would make the game play itself, really. I imagine something
    • That's like one of those simple NP-complete problems.

      :-)

  • Erm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by G-funk (22712) <josh@gfunk007.com> on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:46AM (#6251405) Homepage Journal
    When computers become too small to be operated by buttons, how will we control them?

    Here's a thought... when they get that small, small is no longer the issue... spend some time on improving battery life / screen resolution / feature X.
  • more ideas (Score:5, Interesting)

    by leekwen (677248) on Friday June 20, 2003 @01:54AM (#6251425)
    i remember there was a controller for the SNES, Genesis, and i think NES called the turbo touch 360 that used a laser sensor on a flat surface instead of the Dpad, i was thinking maybe an updated version of that which detects a finger covering some light emitting gizmo.

    or how about connectors which can be fused through skin?

    and i've often seen elevator buttons which aren't buttons but solid flat things that seem to only activate when i touch it with my finger (i tried poking one with my keys and it didn't work), i'm not sure how those work but it seems like that could be implemented in a thin device as well.

    bending seems like a decent idea but i'm so used to jamming my finger onto things to make things happen.
    • The buttons that aren't really buttons are sort of like laptop trackpads. They use capacitance to detect your finger and then act. They can be fabricated quite thin (see the third generation iPods for an example), but since there is no tactile feedback telling you when the button is pressed, they aren't particularly good for touch-typing keyboards. Also, since there is no physical button to press, it is much easier to accidentally press a few buttons at a time.

      Apple has been using this technology for ye
    • Namco's NegCon (Score:3, Interesting)

      by henele (574362)
      Lower tech than most of the solutions popping up, but Namco did release the twisty NegCon [gameassault.com] controller, which in the future could be part of the time line of this field of devices...
    • bending seems like a decent idea but i'm so used to jamming my finger onto things to make things happen

      /me ducks under hail of sexual innuendo jokes

  • Design fault (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Seems to me that flexing the device is more complex & difficult and than using buttons. I think they are barking up the wrong tree with this idea!
  • by jrl87 (669651) on Friday June 20, 2003 @02:06AM (#6251469)
    Finally, I might actually be able to get the all new , redesign, second generation Etch-a-Sketch
  • Swivel it (Score:2, Funny)

    by IdleLay (682465)
    I wonder if this device can be made into the form of an office swivel chair. A few receptionist/office admin would get a lot more work done by simply sitting there and swivel and shake.
  • cursor control (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ThePeices (635180) on Friday June 20, 2003 @02:14AM (#6251497)
    Im not sure the idea of moving a cursor by moving your finger on a small touchpad is the most efficient idea, UI wise. It seems too ungainly, and a pain to use. Touchpads are not as good as a mouse, especially a small one. The only easy way to interface is to touch the screen on the front. Though im not sure how one gets around entering text easily...our current ways of using a stylus, moving a cursor, or pressing tiny keyboard buttons just to enter in some words just doesnt cut it. There has to be an easier and more efficient way of doing this.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    A Touch sensitive pad can work with :click, drag, double tap, tap, and even triple tap, but it cannot understand majically WHICH GODDAMNED finger you are using by using psychic powers.

    That is why the Apple Mac OS (no second mouse button idiocy) , and NeXTStep gui (2nd mouse = 1st button unless custom overridden by user after purchase) are ideal for flexible illuminated placemat computers.

    This was discussed in 1983.

    Apple planned on this over 20 years ago.

    That is whay a gui needs to be finger-order insens
    • Yeah, great, but where will they put the Command key?

      You can rave about one button mouse all you want, but all Apple really did was move the second mouse button from the mouse to the keyboard.
  • To me it looks like searching the map will become similar to one of those puzzle maze games - bend too much and you will end up in the middle of nowhere.
  • by nacturation (646836) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `noitarutcan'> on Friday June 20, 2003 @02:26AM (#6251527) Journal
    "When computer get too small for buttons..."

    Reminds me of a Bloom County comic strip where Milo & gang go to the new 3000 theatre mega-cinema or whatever it was called. An announcement comes over the P.A. system: "Due to our recent expansion to 3000 screens, our screen size has shrunk so small it's no longer visible. Please exit to the side."

    Unless the device has a different practical use than displaying information (such as playing MP3s or whatever) you're not really going to want something so tiny it's physically unusable. There's something to be said for real buttons that you can press and get positive tactile feedback.
  • by gerddie (173963) on Friday June 20, 2003 @02:31AM (#6251544)
    ... in quicktime format (mplayer can do this) movie can be found here [sony.co.jp]
  • by Anonymous Coward
    ... has nothing to do with my comment, but I was thinking about how it would be nice to have softer, more organic bendable devices to stuff in my pockets, this thought came specifically after I pulled my new motorola T720 out of my pocket and discovered the anteanna had gone impotent on me... permanently.

    I'm all for some more flexible devices, but the flexibility controlling them?, would there be the equivalent of a "hold" switch or keyguard to prevent you from accidentaly hacking the CIA by doing jazzerci
  • by 73939133 (676561) on Friday June 20, 2003 @02:55AM (#6251608)
    This seems like a solution in search of a problem. Using Jot (or other character-at-a-time input methos), you can write on something as small as a watch face [fossil.com].
  • Touchable (Score:4, Interesting)

    by phorm (591458) on Friday June 20, 2003 @03:00AM (#6251622) Journal
    If they can make a device "bendable" why not just "touchable". No large protruding buttons, but maybe something to sense impact, body heat or electrostatic impulses. My touchpad on my laptop didn't seem to have a large controller chip, if they could microsize that perhaps we could have touchpad-cards?
  • So, if the device has a touchpad already, why not just have the user tap the touchpad to do things like mouse clicks? Is it just in order to have more than one button? If so, I really don't see the reason. If the devices are designed to be "cheap" and have a limited life, as most of these posts have been guessing, what application could there be for it that would need more than one button? Games? I would think you could just tap in different areas of the touchpad.

    Although, I do remember when Nintendo
  • Dumb concept (Score:5, Insightful)

    by digiZen (535342) on Friday June 20, 2003 @03:10AM (#6251653)
    I think those design people missed out something in their college careers. They missed out learning the principle of diminishing returns.

    Being small only gets you so far, and just because you can make it smaller doesn't mean that you should. For example, take your average ball-point pen. Most pens you can buy in a store are about the same size - a good fit for an average hand. Yet, I've seen a few "toy" pens here and there - I remember there was a teeny pen on a swiss army knife I owned. That thing was completely useless. You could attempt to write with it, but your hands cramped up almost instantly. That's probably the reason you don't see a lot of swiss army knives with pens as attachments nowdays. I'm sure there are ways of making a new "interface" for a miniature ball-point pen - for example, if you had nothing to do, you could probably attach it to a thimble and have a half-decent pen. The point is, that people don't do it. There is a thing as TOO small.

    I think handheld computers too are getting to their natural sizes with the Palm (and PocketPC) form factors. If you get too much smaller, you start squinting at the screen and there's the whole issue of diminishing utility again. Input into the thing becomes just one of your (many) issues. I had a teensy cell phone for example, and I was in constant fear of losing it in the cushions of my couch. I actually upgraded to a larger phone with more features and a longer battery life - because the size of the previous phone was a nuisance rather than a benefit.

  • by deunan_k (637851) <knute@d[ ]an.com ['eun' in gap]> on Friday June 20, 2003 @03:18AM (#6251675) Homepage

    There are two powerhouses in the PDA industry, Pocket PC and Palm.. Sorry guys, Zaurus IMO is still a non-mainstream. Firstly I'm not gonna talk about a specific PDA or specific brand, rather PDA in general.

    In general, most people use PDAs for the address book function, and majority of these people uses the Appointment/Calendar function too. Some would also use the notes function too, but seldom. Anything extra, rest assured you can call yourself a power user. I know this for a fact because I used to work in a retail shop selling PDAs

    Let's look at features that most users want..

    Handy - Small, slim stylish design that you can keep in your shirt pockets. Not something the size of a brick, and weighs like one!

    Battery - You want something that can last at least for a few days without charging the battery (One Pocket PC brand got it right finally, by having removable batteries)

    Affordability - Most Tom, Dick and Harries don't need the bells and whistles and the extra gadgets like cameras, bluetooth, Wi-Fi, modems, large external storage. Something reasonable is probably the order of the day. All those extras costs money, house-wives don't need most of 'em in order to keep track of their grocery shopping list do they.. So are students, secretaries and bosses, normal users and joes like me ;-P

    Most of those who bought brick-like units are usually either power users (who knows what they want) or those who got too much money and wanna show off. I call these PDAs - Show-Off Units.

    Sony bendable handhelds, well, Look and see.. Price-wise, if they're out of reach, most joes won't use it. Battery-wise, too short, they're not Palm-Tops nor Pocket PCs, rather Desktop PDAs, since they're perpetually connected to their charger unit. If it is too bulky, hell no, I'm not gonna use it, cuz it won't stay in my pocket. I don't wanna look like a fully packed Llama

    In the end, I (and most joe user) want something convenient to use to get day to day tasks done

  • by httpamphibio.us (579491) on Friday June 20, 2003 @03:37AM (#6251734)
    As long as we have to physically interact with electronic devices with some part of our body there will always be buttons, switches, knobs, dials, etc. I think we are much more likely to see digital versions of these types of interface devices becoming widely adopted. Space is certainly a premium, but with any physical object you always have a back side, for example my dad was recently in Holland and his business partner over there drives a car that has the radio controls on the back side of the stearing wheel, exactly where your fingers rest when you drive.

    Not to mention forcing the general public to learn a new way to interface, which we all know is difficult, but these devices are going to have to be extremely well made to withstand all the abuse. With the rapidly dropping quality of consumer-level products I'd be quite wary of purchasing something that by it's very nature would have to go through all that.
    • I was thinking along those lines, too.

      It comes down to this: why do we still use a keyboard today? It's not like keyboards are going away, far from it; they're actually getting bigger. Well, more buttons anyway, if not actually increasing in dimension.

      I don't think the human interface part of the computer as it is today is going to go away, or even get much smaller, anytime soon, there just won't be so much space devoted to everything else.

  • Wallet apps (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Elanor (130622)
    This is cool. The tourist map thing is fairly obvious, but you could have a range of different cards in your wallet, that you could swap with relatives/mates etc. The book idea is good, magazines & newspapers on card would also work. Go to the counter in the newsagents and get your choice of reading material uploaded. Etcha-sketch not far off the mark, it could be a sketchpad for your use (probs need some kind of stylus tho, extra parts == bad). Games are always good. You could have a photo album one, p
  • the perfect way (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tshuma (611888)
    I was wondering too much about it.. it happend years before.. but now.. I still think this is the only perfect way:
    Have one litle headphone-micro in your ear. And one retina projectors (in your glasses or your heat, or whatever position). So you can see everything what is important, and you can controll with your eyes and your voice.
    To call a friend just say "phone" "call" "joe"
    and the call is on the way..
    or if you want to know where you are, just say "map" "locate" and you will see front of you the map, an
  • Limitations (Score:2, Insightful)

    Isn't the whole thing kinda... limited? I mean, how many ways can you bend something? And even their example application looks like it would be much easier to just add 2 small buttons.
  • by HardcoreGamer (672845) on Friday June 20, 2003 @04:54AM (#6251894)

    Early this year, I saw some fairly sophisticated interaction using a flexible input device called ShapeTape [measurand.com], made by Canada's Measurand [measurand.com]. While the company is marketing it as a motion-capture [measurand.com] and 3D modeling technology, Tovi Grossman [toronto.edu] at the University of Toronto's Dynamic Graphics Project [toronto.edu] has been working under Ravin Balakrishnan [toronto.edu] to explore other applications for ShapeTape, including as a general input device. For example, you can use it in computer-assisted design or animation to make and perform some fairly complex 3D curves and manipulations in far less time than it would take with keyboards, mice or drawing tablets.

    The Association of Computing Machinery's [acm.org] computer-human interaction publication CHI Letters' [sigchi.org] latest edition [acm.org] includes their paper on the use of ShapeTape [toronto.edu] (2 MB PDF), which was presented at the ACM CHI 2003 [chi2003.org] conference on human factors in computing systems along with MPEG demonstration videos. (3 min. basic - 15 MB [toronto.edu] | 15 min. complete - 190 MB [toronto.edu])

    Grossman's Web page includes links to other videos and previous papers [toronto.edu].

    Computer graphics and animation tool-maker Alias|Wavefront [aliaswavefront.com] also has several videos [aliaswavefront.com] that featured former chief scientist Bill Buxton [billbuxton.com] demonstrating ShapeTape in use:

    And, of course, ShapeTape maker Measurand also has further information and videos [measurand.com].

    • The Measurand itself looks useful for its intended purposes. But a lot of the "research" in HCI reminds me of the old tune...


      You can pull all the stops out, till they call the cops out
      Grind your behind till you're banned
      But you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get a hand.
      You can sacrifice your sacro, workin' in the backrow
      Bump in a dump till you're dead
      Kid you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get ahead.
  • ...in a science fiction story more than 20 years ago. Unfortunately, I forget the author - anybody else remember that one?
  • Fabric keyboard (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pacc (163090) on Friday June 20, 2003 @05:57AM (#6252078) Homepage
    If you want a large keyboard but don't want to carry around bigger things than your PDA there are fabric keyboards [infosyncworld.com] that double as a wrapper case.
  • Old (Score:3, Funny)

    by isorox (205688) on Friday June 20, 2003 @06:02AM (#6252089) Homepage Journal
    I used to think FlexATX was a flexable motherboard...
  • by Ace905 (163071) on Friday June 20, 2003 @06:03AM (#6252092) Homepage
    What happens when machines become our hands?

  • by Ex-MislTech (557759) on Friday June 20, 2003 @06:12AM (#6252109)
    Reminds of the variable resistive nintendo power glove .

    Flex resistors that change resistance based on how much
    they were flexed , an old idea with a new twist .

    Not sure what the spatial sensors were though ...

    Ex-MislTech

  • by istartedi (132515) on Friday June 20, 2003 @06:35AM (#6252183) Journal

    When cars become too small to drive, the only option will be to gently bend them. :)

    That's how ridiculous this business of changing the ergonomics to conform to the implementation sounds.

    If I had a Pentium-IV equivalent system the size of a quarter that could be powered by a watch battery, you know what I'd do with it? I'd build it into a full-sized IBM keyboard. Or, for more mobility, how about one of those portable Palm keyboards?

    I certainly have no desire to bend anything just because the guts are small. Also, if these things are expensive I don't want them to be too small anyway. Too easy to lose.

    When computers become too small to operate, the only option will be to gently bend them, and throw them into the garbage.

  • Small Small Small (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dj015 (680676)
    am i the only person who prefers big? :|

    all these damm things are getting smaller and some mobile phones i cant see the screen anymore they need to be bigger not smaller
  • I'm Gummi, dammit!
  • If you think this is cool, you should also check out the HP Itsy [compaq.com]. You interact with said device by holding it at different angles, and hitting one button. Yes, you can play Doom like that :)

    ~pi
  • Blade Runner? (Score:2, Interesting)

    Does this remind anyone else of that picture browser in Blade Runner?
  • simple, just imbed them into our skin/clothing/jewlery and have them link up to a wireless control device that's connected to your nervous system...

    Seriously though; eventually there's going to be some sort of nervous system -> computer interface developed that doesn't involve actual physical contact/motion. Until then, what we have now [and in some situations voice commands] should be sufficient.
  • Come on, trolls, yer slacking here!

    Imagine a beowulf cluster of these.... okay, it's said now.

HELP!!!! I'm being held prisoner in /usr/games/lib!

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