Imagine if an app in your phone or tablet could take your pulse or measure your blood sugar just when you touch the screen, without any added hardware. New developments in the construction of screen glass might mean such technologies are on the way.
Scientists at Corning, makers of the popular Gorilla Glass found in millions of handheld devices, and Canada’s Polytechnique Montreal, have released a study about building light-based sensors into the physical structure of glass used for device screens. The sensors are placed in stackable layers using finer detail than ever before.
The technology means apps can get more accurate readings from far more sensors than just those already placed under screens to detect a touch or swipe. It uses laser to inscribe wave-guides into the glass that use photons of light to describe the transmission of information.
“[It] can be used to transmit information encoded on to the light, in other words, sense its environment to ascertain the properties of a material placed near that surface,” said Dr Alan F Evans, Corning’s research director.
The team behind the system has already built two prototype applications. The first is a temperature sensor based on interferometer technology, which reads body temperature from the touch of a finger.
The other is a unique authentication system that uses tiny dots to scatter infrared light that can be read by the device’s camera. The pattern of scattered light can then be transposed into ones and zeros read as binary data, making strings of characters of up to a quadrillion patterns.
“It’s like a permanent and unique barcode on every smartphone that’s very difficult to counterfeit and also not easily seen, so doesn’t intrude with the operation of the phone,” Dr Evans said.
With the possibility of more detailed sensors built into an interface substrate like a touchscreen, it potentially makes every glass surface a computer.
The research brings us a step closer to Corning’s own speculative short film series A Day Made of Glass, where computers are embedded in surfaces from kitchen walls to the dashboards of cars.
“I see this advancement being even more useful for wearables like glasses and watches,” says Joanan Hernandez, founder of Montreal developer Mollejuo AR Studio, which makes mobile apps to help guide travellers in unfamiliar cities.
“Putting transparent sensors on glasses and watches will reduce the circuit box needed for these devices, which in turn will make them more attractive and easier to wear.”
The basis for laser-inscribed wave-guides opens the field to even more circuits based on light. When the glass can distinguish between materials or even within a specific material, the possibilities are endless.
Putting food on your phone to see if it’s been washed in contaminated water or spitting on your screen to see if you have a cold coming on might not sound socially acceptable today, but phones and tablets are soon set to do much more than take calls, send emails and play games.