Cuttable Printed Sensor Makes Everything Interactive

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Usually taking a pair of scissors to electronics doesn’t end well. However, a group of computer scientists has created a design for printed electronics that can be cut like paper and applied to just about any object to make it responsive.

The cuttable multi-touch sensor was developed through a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab’s Responsive Environment Group and the Embodied Interaction Group from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Saarland University. The human-computer interaction experts are presenting their sensor design at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) this week in Scotland.

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Usually if you want to turn a sheet of printed circuitry into a custom shape, cutting through it will break the electronic functionality. But customization is necessary if you wanted to do something like create smart clothing on the fly. As the team led by Jürgen Steimle explained in this video about their tech, conventional touch sensors have electrodes arranged in a grid with wires linking each to a connector on either border. Cut two wires and you knock out large areas altogether.

So the group came up with a new, more robust design. The strongest version they made has a star shape where the connector is at the center of the sheet and wires radiate outward to the electrodes. They printed the electrodes on flexible substrate using conductive ink, and found that the sensors still performed well after being cut into unique shapes.

When the group combined a sheet that had more of a tree-shaped pattern with the one that had the star pattern, they could successfully cut out more complicated that retained fairly high performance, according to their paper (PDF). It didn’t even matter where you started as long as you cut around the center.

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With these sensor sheets you could make all kinds of objects interactive. There’s so much fun stuff you could create with shapes like stars, hearts, clouds. ”Imagine a kid takes our sensor film and cuts out a flower with stem and leaves. If you touch the blossom with a finger, you hear the buzzing of a bumblebee,” Steimle told Nanowerk News.

The group also envisions embedding their sensor into materials such as cardboard or plywood that could be custom cut for interactive models, prototypes and paper crafts. Real-world objects and surfaces suddenly become responsive to touch. This could take scrapbooking to an entirely new level.

Photo: This extremely thin multi-touch sensor can be cut to size and keep working. Credit: Embodied Interaction Group (video)