When Do I Get My Cheap, Flexible Touchscreen?

In his 1995 novel The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson whetted our interest with his description of mediatrons, cheap touchscreen devices that were thin and flexible, like paper:

Bud took a seat and skimmed a mediatron from the coffee table; it looked exactly like a dirty, wrinkled, blank sheet of paper. "'Annals of Self-Protection,'" he said, loud enough for everyone else in the place to hear him. The logo of his favorite meedfeed coalesced on the page. Mediaglyphics, mostly the cool animated ones, arranged themselves in a grid. Bud scanned through them until he found the one that denoted a comparison of a bunch of different stuff, and snapped at it with his fingernail. New mediaglyphics appeared, surrounding larger pictures in which Annals staff tested several models of skull guns against live and dead targets.

So, when do I get one?

Electronic devices with touchscreens are ubiquitous, and one key piece of technology makes them possible: transparent conductors. However, the cost and the physical limitations of the material these conductors are usually made of are hampering progress toward flexible touchscreen devices.

Fortunately, a research collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University has shown a new a way to design transparent conductors using metal nanowires that could enable less expensive — and flexible — touchscreens.

The research was conducted by graduate student Rose Mutiso, undergraduate Michelle Sherrott and professor Karen Winey, all of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. They collaborated with graduate student Aaron Rathmell, and professor Benjamin Wiley of Duke’s Department of Chemistry.

The Penn team’s simulation provides further evidence for each variable’s role in the overall network’s performance, helping the researchers home in on the right balance of traits for specific applications. Increasing the coverage area of nanowires, for example, always decreases the overall electrical resistance, but it also decreases optical transparency; as more and more nanowires are piled on the networks appear gray, rather than transparent.

“For specific applications and different types of nanowires, the optimal area fraction is going to be different,” Winey said. “This simulation shows us how many nanowires we need to apply to reach the Goldilocks zone where you get the best mix of transparency and resistance.”

Obviously, it's still a long way to effective commercialization of this idea - but my mediatrons are getting closer!

Via Kurzweil AI; see also Penn release.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/12/2013)

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