OffBeat

This transparent speaker hints at the soft, stretchable future of electronics

In the future, the most interesting electronics will be the ones you don’t see.

Materials scientists at Harvard University have created a proof-of-concept speaker built with a kind of transparent gel-based electronics. Unlike today’s devices, which transmit currents via electrons, devices using this new system will transmit currents using ionic charges — opening up a variety of new applications.

Some of these are particularly interesting: Because our bodies also use ionic charges to transmit signals, the Harvard tech could be used for implants and artificial muscles. Also, because the tech is highly stretchable, it can be used in both large displays and in the sort of small ones we’ll soon see on wearable devices.

“Engineered ionic systems can achieve a lot of functions that our body has: they can sense, they can conduct a signal, and they can actuate movement. We’re really approaching the type of soft machine that biology has to offer,” project co-lead author Christoph Keplinger tells Harvard.

Also interesting are the ways the transparent tech could augment the capacity of windows. Imagine, for example, a transparent smart window that could mimic the technology found in noise-canceling headphones to cancel out the sound from the outside world. This is one example where transparency is core to the application. (The same goes for any potential uses in glasses or other heads-up displays, where transparency is also key.)

In the meantime, though, Harvard University is already working to commercialize the idea, which could soon appear in smartphones, tablets, and computers.