Artificial Muscle Brings Dynamic Motion Response to Touch Screens

Touch screens have become a major part of everyday life, but they are also limited by the lack of tactile feedback. By combining the sense of touch with sight and sound, the user would get a much more complete experience, whether it is the feel of driving, balls moving in pinball or many other sensations.

Artificial Muscle, Inc. (AMI)
sees this as an opportunity, and is making its mark with its development of Electroactive Polymers (EAP) materials and applications. Its technology shows much promise: Artificial Muscle was acquired by Bayer MaterialScience LLC (BMS) in March 2010.

“EAPs enable innovative designs with rapid response time, precise controllability, energy efficiency and a wide range of customizability,” said Marcus Rosenthal, director of strategic alliances for Artificial Muscle. “AMI saw the emerging need for tactile feedback, often called haptic feedback, in consumer electronics that was being created by the proliferation of touchscreens.

“Artificial Muscle is currently focused on applications of haptic feedback for touchscreen devices, gaming controllers and other touch user interfaces,” Rosenthal noted. “Artificial Muscle technology is also under R&D for applications including pumps, valves and power generation.”

Artificial Muscle was spun out of SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute) International in early 2004 to commercialize its EAP technology, with an eye on products for a range of applications including valves, pumps, positioners, power generation and sensors. By 2008, AMI saw an opportunity in consumer electronics, including smart phones and gaming controllers, and developed its Bayfol ReflexTM brand of haptic actuators.

“After surveying the market, AMI determined that customers were unhappy with the limitations of available haptic actuators,” Rosenthal added. “In late 2008, AMI chose to leverage the real-time response and versatility of EAPs to create the Bayfol Reflex brand of haptic actuators. These products are targeted at a wide range of consumer electronics, including smartphones and other portable electronics, computer peripherals, gaming controllers, touchpads, POS kiosks, industrial controls and casino gaming machines.

“AMI believes its EAP products can have a wide range of applications, including valves, pumps, positioners, power generation, and sensors,” Rosenthal said. “An extensive qualification program has demonstrated long lifetimes, high reliability and stable performance over a wide range of operating environments. AMI currently owns or has exclusive license to over 70 issued patents in the U.S. and other countries.”

In March 2010, Bayer MaterialScience (BMS) announced the acquisition of Artificial Muscle. The acquisition brings benefits to both companies, in terms of R&D efforts and global reach.

“Artificial Muscle benefits from the BMS acquisition by having the backing of a company with a great reputation in the industry,” Rosenthal said. “BMS gives AMI the credibility and trust that all our customers require. AMI also benefits from utilizing the BMS global business development teams that give the sales and marketing teams a much broader reach. BMS also has a 16-person team in Leverkusen, Germany that concentrates on EAP materials based on polyurethanes, which will be the next generation and even more powerful EAP material.”

Artificial Muscle’s technology is based on an electroactive polymer made from a thin layer of dielectric polymer film between two conductive electrodes. When voltage is applied, the electrical force causes the electrodes to attract each other, causing the film to contract in thickness and expand in surface area. The electrical energy is transformed directly into mechanical movement.

While numerous companies are working on haptic feedback systems, AMI has developed industry-leading technology that provides the quickest feedback and widest range of feeling at minimal power consumption, all essential for users. The versatile form factor allows the AMI Bayfol Reflex system to be used in practically any product.

“The key differentiators for Artificial Muscle’s product include rapid response time, wide frequency bandwidth, low power consumptions and multiple integration options,” Rosenthal said. “The rapid response time enables haptic effects to be felt instantaneously to provide realistic, synchronized feedback.”

“The wide frequency bandwidth enables the haptic actuators to provide a wide range of types of feelings and even powerful subwoofer capabilities in compact devices,” Rosenthal continued. “The low power consumption is beneficial for battery-powered applications to have minimal impact on battery life. For example, button click feedback in touch screen typing AMI’s Bayfol Reflex consumes one-third to one-10th of the power of a typical vibratory motor. “

The ability to print Bayfol Reflex allows customization as well as the ability to compress the actuator.

“Since Bayfol Reflex is a printed actuator technology, it is highly customizable to enable many integration options into space limited in consumer electronics devices,” Rosenthal said.

What’s Next for Artificial Muscle?

With a host of new products backed by the Bayer MaterialScience capabilities, Artificial Muscle is poised to make a major move into the consumer electronics space. This is clearly seen by the successful introduction of the Mophie PulseTM at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. The Mophie Pulse is a game grip for the fourth-generation iPod touch, which features dynamic motion response (haptic feedback) and battery-powered front-facing stereo speakers.

“The introduction of the Mophie Pulse is very exciting for AMI because this is the first product that will integrate AMI Bayfol Reflex technology,” Rosenthal said. “This product had a tremendous response at its announcement at the CES show in Las Vegas. The Mophie Pulse was awarded two best in show awards by Gizmodo and Beatweek.”

Meanwhile, AMI is continuing to advance its EAP technology; among the areas of focus are size, life cycle and production capability.

“Other notable advances by AMI include demonstrated reliability of our technology at wide environmental range, small packaging as a printed actuator of less than 1mm thick, and long cycle life in excess of 10 million cycles. And, AMI has scaled up the actuator production into high volume,” Rosenthal added.

Rosenthal noted that Artificial Muscle and Bayer MaterialScience see the PE market as an excellent opportunity.

“AMI and BMS see the PE market as a healthy and growing market,” Rosenthal concluded. “By utilizing PE techniques for manufacturing components such as Bayfol Reflex actuators, it enables manufacturing costs to be drastically reduced at high volume production. This high volume and low cost production is expected to be essential for mass adoption in consumer electronics.”