Novasentis thin film haptic

The IDTechEx conference was held in Santa Clara, CA November 18 and 19, 2015, covering a wide range of topics including wearable devices and related technology such as sensors, printed electronics, and energy harvesting. This is one of the many items of interest from that conference.

As we’ve discussed here many times before, wearable Health Tech devices require new forms of user interface, so that the devices can convey information to the wearer. In addition to lights and displays, one effective approach is vibration to provide haptic feedback.

When the cellphone market exploded, designers needed a way to silently notify the user of an incoming call or other alert. This created a whole new industry for tiny electric motors with eccentric weights to create vibrations in phones. While these are small and require little power, they are still enormous by wearable standards. Novasentis is a company that has come up with a film-based solution. They make thin sheets of a polymer that has piezoelectric properties; when you apply an electrical current, the material expands along one direction, causing it to move. They create a 30-layer stack of this plastic film, and then send pulses of electricity through them in different patterns. The result is a vibration that can be felt by the wearer.

In the photo above, you see a traditional cellphone vibrating device at the top. To the left is a quarter for scale, and to the left of center is a stack of the plastic sheets. Four of these have been mounted on the flexible strip at the middle of the photo, which can be wrapped around a person’s wrist. When I tested this demo unit, I could feel the vibrations at different locations on my wrist. Different electrical patterns produced different vibrations that were easy to identify, so the one device could be used to signal a variety of events. The demo included a vibration that traveled around and around my wrist. And the devices could even be made to vibrate fast enough to create audible sounds.

The company plans to have the technology in production in 2016. This product could be highly useful for a wide range of wearable applications where you want to signal the wearer in a discrete or non-visual manner.