A shape-shifting touchscreen prototype called the Cubimorph is being presented at a robotics forum this week in Stockholm, Sweden, potentially making another step towards consumer devices that physically change shape depending on the task at hand. The Cubimorph is made up of a chain of cubes with touchscreen faces, that lock together in various configurations.

The prototype is the result of research led by Dr Anne Roudaut at the University of Bristol, which aimed to make progress in the area of modular interactive devices. Current examples mainly involves prototypes with folding displays, but Cubimorph is different in that it takes a modular approach to form three dimensional shapes.

Each of the Cubimorph's individual self-contained cubes have miniature touchscreens embedded into all six sides, and they connect to each other with turntable-mounted hinges, allowing them to rotate in four directions to "form any approximate 3D geometry." The example given has the device change from the standard rectangular shape of a phone into the shape of a games controller, triggered by the user launching a game.

The full image appears stretched across the mini screens, in a similar way to the big multiscreen displays you see in bars and public spaces.

A detailed algorithm drives the path the Cubimorph takes from shape to shape, designed to avoid snapping shut on the user's fingers or colliding with other parts of itself. It also appears users can set it to either morph quickly, or carefully within a confined space, so it avoids "producing cumbersome configurations" like a straight line. If you're using it on a train, you don't want it to reach out and slap fellow commuters.

"Cubimorph is the first step towards a real modular interactive device," says Roudaut. "Much work still needs to be achieved to put such devices in the end-user hands but we hope our work will create discussion between the human computer interaction and robotics communities that could be of benefit to one another."

The Cubimorph prototype, which was the result of collaboration of members from the universities of Bristol, Purdue, Lancaster and Sussex, is being presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2016, which is currently taking place in Stockholm.

It can be a little hard to picture how the Cubimorph works, but the video below demonstrates its mechanical design and algorithms.