Researchers at the University of Tokyo have published a paper on a device they've dubbed the PneuModule, designed to offer reconfigurable pressure-sensitive physical control through clever pneumatic "pin arrays."
"We present PneuModule, a tangible interface platform that enables users to reconfigure physical controls on pressure-sensitive touch surfaces using pneumatically-actuated inflatable pin arrays," the researchers, Changyo Han, Ryo Takahashi, Yuchi Yahagi, and Takeshi Naemura, write of their work. "PneuModule consists of a main module and extension modules. The main module is tracked on the touch surface and forwards continuous inputs from attached multiple extension modules to the touch surface.
"Extension modules have distinct mechanisms for user input, which pneumatically actuates the inflatable pins at the bottom of the main module through internal air pipes. The main module accepts multi-dimensional inputs since each pin is individually inflated by the corresponding air chamber. Also, since the extension modules are swappable and identifiable owing to the marker design, users can quickly customize the interface layout."
It's that customization which is the key to PneuModule's impressive flexibility: Where traditional physical interfaces take a fixed form, PneuModule can be adjusted by the user to accommodate for different control requirements. Modules are attached and detached from the cube-shaped main body quickly and easily, without the need for electrical connectivity; instead, silicone "pins" are inflated and the change in pressure caused by interaction read back.
The resulting system is capable of more than just reading simple button presses, too: The prototype PneuModule system proved capable of reading presses, rotation, generalized and localised squeezing, twisting, bending, and stacking of extension modules. These modules were then used to create a reconfigurable game controller, in which the player can physically change the weapons, an interactive toy based on the Android operating system's mascot, and an adaptive music controller.
More information is available on lead author Han's website, along with a link to download a PDF of the paper.