Qiming Zhang Develops Haptic Shape-Changing Thin Keyboards

People tired of cramping their fingers typing on tiny flat-screen keyboards will applaud the full-size keyboards developed by Qiming Zhang’s San Francisco startup. They provide the tactile feedback of conventional keyboards but are ultra-thin enough to roll back into a mobile device.

Strategic Polymers Sciences — of which Zhang is a co-founder — uses polymers that respond instantaneously to electric fields by changing shape or vibrating. The 1.5mm polymer used in the firm’s upcoming keyboards can expand up to 10% to provide a raised feel for each character. They can also produce various sounds, as well as vibrations, in response to touches.

There are other materials that provide this kind of response to electric fields, but they don’t have the ideal balance of properties, On the one side, there are very hard ceramic materials called piezoelectrics that can respond rapidly to voltage, but don’t provide much shape change. On the other are other electrically responsive polymers that can dramatically change shape but work slowly. The new polymers respond in milliseconds, change their shape by as much as 10 percent, and respond to small voltages, says Zhang.

They keyboards will be manufactured at SPS’s facility in State College, Pennsylvania and is set to ship in 2014.

In addition to the roll-up keyboards, the firm is also developing a transparent coating that can coat touch screens to enable similar features. Another product in development is a cell phone with pads on the back that vibrate to indicate right and left turns or notable sights during navigation. Yet another is a fully transparent keyboard with buttons that will physically pop up from the surface of a touch screen when activated, then return to a smooth state.

Qiming Zhang is a Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering at Penn State University where he has been teaching since 1991. His research focus has been novel electronic materials, especially soft electronic materials and ferroelectric based materials. His research group has worked with a broad range of applications of solid state electronic materials like electromechanical, dielectric, photonic and electro-optic, and pyroelectric applications. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institute of Health, and various industrial firms.

Zhang received his PS in electronic physics from Nanjing University in China. He earned his PhD in solid-state physics from Penn State.