Monday, January 14, 2008

The possibility of a reshapable keyboard

I have a bunch of hard drives that failed. I suspect that it's the controller card that is broken, but either way, I can't use it. What to do with old hard drives? That's when I started looking around, and it ends up that there are rare-earth magnets inside. (as well as a voice actuator that you can hook up to an amp to get hard drive speakers.)

And thus, I found a long article on rare earth magnets. Magnets have long fascinated people, as it makes all sorts of things possible, like speakers, hard drives, motors, and generators. But I didn't know about magnetic braking and that you can buy ferrofluids (also described in the article).

Ferrofluids are liquids that responds to a magnetic field. When you put a magnetic field near it, it responds by getting spiky. The stronger the field, the more dense the spikes. I was able to play with some in a enclosed sac once. It's kinda weird. You can actually feel resistance in the liquid when you put a magnet by it, like something's in the liquid.

While the optimus keyboard lets you re-display the keys in any way you wish, I've always wanted a keyboard that I can reshape. I'd rather have the keyboard actually be a membrane stretched over a flat rectangular plate. And depending on the application, the membrane would be able to take on different shapes. So instead of having keys when I'm looking at a map, the "keyboard" would be in the shape of the terrain I'm manipulating. Then I can pan and tilt. If I'm flying a plane, I'd rather have a joystick I can manipulate. I suppose you can make a rudimentary one with ferrofluids in an enclosed membrane. Not only can you reshape the liquid with controlled electromagnetic fields, but you should also be able to detect human interaction with the membrane by how it changes the magnetic field.

If a reshapable keyboard were to exist, you can also hook up two together through the internet. That way, you can interact with other people through touch, and not just text. If I put my hand on the reshapable keyboard and push down, the connected keyboard at the other end should have an imprint of my hand, pushing up out of the membrane. I'd also be able to augment my interactions so that my hand can appear to be holding something that it might not really be on my end. An inane thing would be to play paper, rock, scissors, where instead of the hand gestures, you'd actually see a sheet of paper, a chunk of rock, or pair of scissors rise out of the reshapable keyboard. A more useful application might be to keep family members or loved ones in touch--literally.

And if the membrane were embedded with OLEDs then it can be possible to add color to the membrane, so the interface would be something you can directly manipulate.

When I dreamt this up, I was thinking of gaming applications or remote surgery. Imagine the kind of fun and good you can do with the technology! However, after a bit of thought, I think a more likely scenario is that geeks adopt it for that, and then the porn industry makes it widespread. Just wait and see.

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