Stretchable, programmable keyboard is tailor-made for wearable tech

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The rubber keyboard made from a a dielectric elastomer is soft, flexible and stretchable(Credit: Daniel Xu)

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Most of the keyboards we're familiar with are actually rather complicated pieces of hardware, usually invlolving springs and wiring for dozens of keys, but scientists at the University of Auckland in New Zealand have developed a streamlined, programmable keyboard using a soft, flexible and stretchable type of rubber known as a dielectric elastomer.

The prototype keyboard consists of two sensing layers within a single laminated structure. The surface is separated into nine different sensing regions, essentially creating nine programmable keys.

It's similar to a programmable on-screen keyboard that we're used to seeing on our touchscreens, but with the added bonus of being flexible and almost indestructible, at least when it comes to the simple drops that can destroy a touchscreen device.

"A key benefit of our keyboard is that essentially, it's just a thin sheet of rubber. It can be wrapped around any object which turns it into a keyboard." explained Daniel Xu, who is the author of a paper detailing the advance. "It can also be made into a sensing skin for motion capture, which is useful for athletes, clinicians, and for new interactive gesture controllers."

The paper notes that the number and layout of keys or sensing areas can be modified simply by reprogramming the rubber keyboard, rather than having to add new wires or make any other hardware modifications.

The capabilities of the rubber keyboard were often tested using video games and the researchers have also created a glove from the same material that can sense stretching for use with shooting games.

A company called StretchSense has been spun off from the biomimetics lab at the University of Auckland to develop wearable tech and other products that take advantage of sensors that can detect stretching.

The team's paper appears in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.

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