Thursday, June 07, 2007

Raft of new inventions promise wireless power, interactive packaging

While most of the new companies and individuals that we've worked with these past few years have been skilled, educated and competent, every once in a while we'll get a call from somebody who -- knowingly or not -- asks for the impossible. Not low pricing impossible or new software development impossible. I'm talking about real law of physics-breaking, time-travel and unicorns impossible. Of all the crazy and inane-sounding requests, my favorite has to be the demand for wireless power. Of course such a capability would be a great boone at home, at work, and of course... in the retail store.

Well, if a bunch of researchers at MIT get their way, I may soon have to poking fun at people and instead start learning about wireless power infrastructure. That's right, they can light up a 60W bulb from 15 feet away with no wires, and there's a good chance that the enabling technology (which uses finely-tuned magnetic fields to deliver the power safely across short distances) will find its way into the consumer sector in the coming years.

As if that wasn't enough, Swedish researchers have identified a way to bring interactivity to static posters and packages by laminating a conductive polymer to standard heavy-duty posterboard. As New Scientist notes,

The billboards are made almost entirely from paper materials, making them cheap to assemble, and easy to recycle, says Gulliksson. "We've used the roll-to-roll methods used by industry to process paper materials."

To make the paper surfaces interactive, the team screen prints patterns using conductive inks containing particles of silver that overlap, allowing a current to flow.

The interactive billboard is made in layers with a 3 centimetres thick back layer of Wellboard - a kind of extra-strong cardboard - forming the base. A sheet of paper screen-printed with conductive ink is placed on the base, with a second sheet carrying the billboard's design placed on top.

The middle conductive layer is connected to a power supply and simple microelectronics that play, pause and rewind sounds when the correct sensors are triggered.

Touch sensors are made using a fine pattern of conductive lines in which the current flow is altered when a hand touches it. Laptop computer touchpads use the same principal.

Speakers are made by printing electromagnets out of conductive ink and stretching the paper over a cavity like a speaker cone behind the billboard. The electromagnets vibrate in response to a current, creating a sound.
Touch- and sound-enabled posters are only the beginning, though. Once the process is perfected, I'd expect this kind of technology to quickly find its way into POP displays and even product packaging, where it could add both novelty and utility to an area that could use some excitement.

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