Skip to Content

Bendable Magnetic Interface

A sensing surface developed by Microsoft researchers offers new ways to use computers.
November 18, 2009

Computer users have been typing on keyboards and clicking on mice for more than 20 years. An experimental new interface under development at Microsoft could give them a completely new way to use their system.

Bladder control: Manipulating a magnetic fluid on top of the researchers’ “sensor tile” (top) offers a novel way to control a computer. The interface can be used to sculpt virtual shapes (bottom).

Multi-touch and motion-sensing devices have recently emerged from research labs, offering new ways to operate computers. Microsoft’s experimental tactile interface takes things further still, letting users interact by squashing, stretching, rolling, or rubbing.

At the base of the new device a “sensor tile” produces magnetic multiple fields above its surface. By detecting disturbances to these fields, the system can track the movement of a metal object across its surface, or the manipulation of a bladder filled with iron filings or a magnetic fluid. A user can drag a ball bearing across the surface to move a cursor across a computer’s screen, or manipulate a ferrous fluid-filled bladder to sculpt 3D virtual objects.

Stuart Taylor of Microsoft Research Cambridge in the U.K. says that the surface can easily be reconfigured to allow for different forms of input. Working with Microsoft colleagues and with Jonathan Hook at Newcastle University, Taylor created arrays of 64 magnetic coils, each wrapped in a coiled wire, within a 100-square-centimeter sensor tile. “In essence, these are modeled on an electric guitar setup,” says Taylor. “If you disrupt the field, this causes a current to be induced in the coil.”

The researchers have also experimented with applying currents to the coils to induce physical effects on the objects placed on top of the sensor tile. This could allow an input device to also provide haptic force-feedback, says Taylor.

“It’s an interesting concept which extends multi-touch to something more tangible,” says Anthony Steed, a professor in the Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics group at University College London. To have a surface that lets users manipulate different objects would be of great interest, he says.

However, Steed says, making a device that could switch between an input and output device would be challenging. While moving ball bearings using magnetic fields shouldn’t be too hard, “[moving] ferrous fluid bladders would be trickier,” he says.

Taylor admits that it’s early. As with the very first capacitance-based touch sensors–originally used in experimental electronic instruments but now common in iPhones–it’s hard to guess where this could go or what impact it would have in the long term. “We’re really at the starting point of thinking about the broader applications,” he says.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.