Mind & Matter


The Coming of Soft Tech

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Samsung's flexible Amoled mobile phone prototype. Photo: Samsung


When I interviewed Japanese computer scientist and textile designer Akira Wakita in 2007, he said: “We are surrounded by hard materials. Perhaps walls could become soft. I would like to make a space that is completely composed of soft and elastic materials.”

The same year, NEC polymer scientist Masatoshi Iji showed me prototypes of soft electronic devices—anatomically-friendly timepieces housed in smart, shape-memory biopolymers that gracefully wrap one’s forearm like fabric.

Since then, Wakita’s and Iji’s visions have been edging towards reality, with the imminent release of digital interfaces and mobile electronic devices designed to be supple rather than rigid. Samsung’s next mobile phone, for example, will be made of flexible OLED, a resilient light-emitting film that can purportedly be dropped or folded without any risk of cracking. Kyocera has a similar phone in the works which will be powered by kinetic energy. A later arrival will be flexible e-newspapers that use electronic ink, such as one currently under development by LG.


 It’s difficult to say whether such pliant interfaces will be truly disruptive technologies or fads. After all, there is something to be said for the precision and reliability of a flat, rigid interface. The reality may be something in between: technologies that combine adaptability and sturdiness, much like skin and bone.

Although the commercial release of Samsung’s new Galaxy Skin has been predicted for 2012, this may be a premature forecast. Nevertheless, the coming “soft tech” will likely make a big splash in the mobile electronics market. Perhaps Wakita’s dream of soft architectural walls that are digital interfaces will soon follow.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.