Prestigious Fellowship for research into the next generation of deformable screens

3 September 2019 11:05
Dr Jason Alexander
Dr Jason Alexander

A Lancaster University computer scientist is to lead a major new research project that promises a step-change in the touch-screens on our computing devices and smart phones.

Dr Jason Alexander of Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications has received a personal Fellowship funded with more than €1.4 million from the European Research Council (ERC) to lead the project.

ERC Starting Grants are for talented early-career researchers who completed their PhDs within the last seven years and Dr Alexander’s five-year ‘Force-UI’ project will radically increase the possibilities, expressivity and inclusiveness of future touchscreens with interactions that feel more tactile and realistic.

Dr Alexander will assemble a team of researchers to deliver a new generation of screens by integrating multiple novel interaction features. These include:

·        The ability for users to physically push their finger ‘through’ the screen

·        Enabling the screen to physically push back against the user’s finger

·        Allowing the resistance and stiffness of the screen to adapt to the device’s digital content in real time.

Ideas for new features include protruding buttons that will emerge from a flat screen to present options for users to select – these would remove the need to look directly at the screen when interacting with a device.

These protruding buttons, as well as other new tactile features could help visually impaired people to derive greater benefit from mobile computing devices

Deforming screens would allow users to physically push their fingers into a screen, offering new ways to select functions and interact with content. Interaction with 3D content could occur in 3D. For example, surgeons looking at a series MRI scans would be able to navigate them by physically pushing into the screen.

The ability to adapt a screen’s resistance would open up possibilities to represent the feel of different materials or to provide a tactile dimension to images.

Principal Investigator Dr Jason Alexander, said: “Existing touchscreens are flat, solid surfaces that fail to reproduce the qualities we find when interacting with objects in the real world – such as deformation, stiffness and springiness.

“We aim to develop a paradigm-shift in touchscreens that better exploits the rich capabilities of the human finger and to produce entirely new ways of interacting with devices.

“Imagine buttons that emerge from the flat surface of the screen and then offer resistance to your finger so it feels like you are pressing real buttons, or screens that offer different resistances to represent materials – so you could do things like compare the firmness of sofas or beds when shopping online.”

The new screens will lead to the creation of new ways of interacting with devices, building on existing common touchscreen gestures such pinching to zoom in and out of maps and images.

“These new features could lead to entirely new gestures,” said Dr Alexander. “How hard you push into a screen could be used to help select the size of a brush in a paint application, or it could be used as a way of selecting your emotional response to a social media post – a soft tap could represent a ‘like’, while a long firm jab into the screen might indicate a negative emotional response to a post.”

The research project will result in prototypes of new screen technologies as well as exploring the many possibilities the new technologies will offer.

Professor Adrian Friday, Head of Lancaster university’s School of Computing and Communications, said: “I'm absolutely delighted to hear of Dr Alexander's success in winning this highly competitive funding.  This grant really recognises an exceptional individual who has to potential to do fundamental new work on interaction design that may change the way we interact with our digital devices. Rather than being essentially smooth and lifeless, future displays might directly respond to force applied to them, and push back. I'm excited to see this kind of world leading work progress at Lancaster, and look forward to watching the research develop."

The European Research Council’s Starting Grants are part of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020.

More information on the project is available by visiting