A new dimension for touch-based interfaces

Quad Industries has developed a 3D touch-wheel button as an alternative to the classic mechanical turning knob. “Although this is at present only a demonstrator concept, we believe it will allow us to further explore the possibilities of 3D and curved surfaces for touch-based user interfaces,” says Wim Christiaens of Quad Industries.

The Terasel research project was an initiative of IMEC and ran from October 2013 until the end of 2016. The aim was to develop deformable electronic circuits which can be embedded in irregularly shaped objects made of plastics. The project brought together companies from two different disciplines—the world of electronics and the world of polymer processing—thus enabling the development of a series of prototypes and demonstrator concepts.

Reinventing the wheel

Among those concepts was a 3D touch-wheel button developed by Quad Industries. There is an increasing market demand for touch-based interfaces,” observes Wim Christiaens, R&D Director at Quad Industries. “Consumers clearly love them because of their intuitive feel, no doubt influenced by the popularity of tablets and smartphones. At the same time, we see a shift from classic flat surfaces to curved surfaces and even more complex three-dimensional shapes.”

“That’s how we got the idea for the development of a 3D touch-wheel button as an alternative to the classic mechanical turning knob.” The usage is actually still the same for the user, but the rotating movement of the fingertips is not transferred into an actual rotation of the wheel, instead it is directly converted into an electronic signal.

“Using a touch-wheel button has a lot of benefits,” explains Wim Christiaens. “Eliminating the mechanical moving parts reduces wear and increases reliability. It also enables a better protection of the embedded electronics. By using a single surface, the electronics are completely sealed off from the outside environment, thereby protecting them from the intrusion of dust and dirt.”

Starting point for further exploration

Integrating touch technology into curved and 3D shapes provides a solution for one of the main limitations still facing capacitive touch interfaces. “A flat surface does not provide users with any feedback on the exact location of the button they are looking for,” says Wim Christiaens. “This is a major disadvantage in some situations, for example when you’re driving a car. A slightly recessed button provides users with immediate feedback, indicating that they are at the right location. Equally important, it gives designers more freedom to create new shapes for touch-based interfaces.” “This approach creates a huge potential for new applications,” concludes Wim Christiaens. “The demonstrator enables us to present our innovation as a hands-on experience to customers and other interested parties, and to start exploring new opportunities.”

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