Flexibility is a highly desirable trait in various fields, whether you’re a new employee, a gymnast, or a manufacturer of bendy straws. And now, this characteristic is also sought after in the realm of prototyping electronic devices. Traditionally, designers have relied on “breadboards” to test their designs. However, these rigid and cumbersome platforms hinder the prototyping process. Recognizing this limitation, researchers at MIT have developed a groundbreaking solution called “FlexBoard.”
FlexBoard is a flexible breadboard that revolutionizes the rapid prototyping of interactive sensors, actuators, and displays on curved and deformable surfaces. Unlike its rigid counterparts, FlexBoard enables designers to seamlessly incorporate electronic components onto objects such as balls or clothing. To showcase its versatility, the researchers conducted tests on various items, including kettlebells, video game controllers, and gloves.
By integrating sensors and displays into the hinges of FlexBoard, the team successfully enhanced these objects. For instance, they added sensors and LEDs to kettlebells, allowing them to detect and provide feedback on the users’ swinging technique. Through a color-coded display, the kettlebell indicated red if the form was incorrect and green if it was executed properly, while also keeping track of the number of repetitions. This technology has the potential to revolutionize fitness routines by providing real-time feedback and guidance.
The design of the FlexBoard involves using a thin, flexible plastic material that connects two identical pieces. This unique “living hinge pattern” can be observed in everyday objects like condiment bottle caps and plastic disc case spines. By employing this pattern, the electronic components of FlexBoard are securely held together. The beauty of this innovation lies in its accessibility, as the design can be replicated using an off-the-shelf 3D printer. Fabricating FlexBoards that can be sewn onto items or attached using epoxy glue or Velcro tape opens up a world of possibilities for integrating electronics into everyday objects.
This innovative design paves the way for more efficient customization of interfaces. According to Michael Wessely, a research author who was previously a postdoc at MIT CSAIL and is now an assistant professor at Aarhus University, “A significant advancement in our modern world is the ability to interact with digital content anytime and anywhere, facilitated by ubiquitous interactive devices.”
FlexBoard serves as a versatile and rapid prototyping platform, aiding in the creation of these devices. It allows designers to swiftly experiment with different sensor configurations, displays, and interactive components. This capability can lead to faster product development cycles and the creation of user-friendly and accessible designs.
The advantages of FlexBoard extend beyond interface design and can enhance virtual reality gaming. The research team incorporated a collision warning system into controllers, alerting users wearing VR headsets when they are at risk of bumping into objects in their physical surroundings. Deformable gloves equipped with sensors and motors capture gestures, thereby influencing the in-game interactions of players.
The durability of FlexBoard is also noteworthy. Each breadboard strip is reusable and adhesive, allowing it to withstand repeated bending in both upward and downward directions while remaining securely attached to the prototypes it was tested on. The team tested the durability by subjecting FlexBoard to 1,000 bends, observing that the breadboards remained fully functional without breaking. This bidirectional flexibility enables the platform to adhere to objects with curved designs, making FlexBoard a convenient prototyping tool for makers exploring various hardware options to create new electronic devices.
Users have the flexibility to cut the long breadboard strips into smaller segments for use with smaller items, or they can attach multiple FlexBoards to prototype larger objects. For instance, several FlexBoards could be wrapped around a tennis racquet, expanding the range of sensors for detecting the speed of a volley.
Overall, FlexBoard represents a significant advancement in interface design and prototyping, empowering designers and makers to create innovative and adaptable interactive devices.
The versatility of this platform can streamline the process of electronic prototyping on various surfaces. Junyi Zhu, an MIT Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and computer science and CSAIL affiliate, emphasizes that traditional approaches treat object form and electronic functions as separate tasks, leading to challenges in early-stage prototype testing and integration issues later on.
FlexBoards address these challenges by offering enhanced, reusable flexible breadboards, significantly accelerating the prototyping pipeline for interactive devices. This platform is particularly valuable for low-power electronics design and the DIY community.
In the future, FlexBoard has the potential to make workout equipment, kitchen tools, furniture, and other household items more interactive. However, the research team acknowledges that further optimization is necessary, particularly in terms of bendability, durability, and strength through multi-material printing. The current design is tailored for FDM printers, limiting the length and increasing the print time of FlexBoards. Additionally, manual assembly of terminal strips makes prototyping of bendable objects more challenging.
Donghyeon Ko, a former MIT visiting Ph.D. student from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, highlights the need to question the rigidity of breadboards, especially as other researchers explore diversifying material properties. The team’s aim was to make everyday objects “breadboard-able” while developing shape-changing interfaces.
The work on FlexBoard has been documented in a research paper authored by Wessely, Zhu, Ko, Stefanie Mueller (CSAIL affiliate and associate professor at MIT), and Yoonji Kim (assistant professor at Chung-Ang University). The platform was presented at the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in April.