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Electroactive polymers help listeners 'feel' sound

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June 4, 2013

CINCINNATI — The next time you listen to a live album, you could do more than just hear applause; you might be able to feel it.

Artificial Muscle Inc., a subsidiary of Bayer MaterialScience LLC, is bringing electroactive polymer technology to phones, tablets and, most recently, headphones.

EAP technology can be used to create products that offer haptic, or tactile response, feedback; users of headphones or hand-held devices equipping EAP technology are able to feel vibrations that correspond to complicated sound waves.

"You put in a wave form that looks like a heartbeat and what you'll feel on your phone or tablet is a heartbeat," said Xian Quan, vice president of materials development for AMI, at Antec 2013.

AMI's ViviTouch 4D Sound technology involves printing electrodes on very thin pieces of polymer film. The electrodes respond to different voltage and cause the film to vibrate. When you change the voltage, the vibration changes as well. It can be programmed to respond to very complicated, precise sound waves, so a bouncing ball will vibrate differently than an explosion.

When used in headphones, the ViviTouch actuator stimulates the bone and tissue in your ears, amplifying how you hear and perceive sound. The headphones create an "HD sensory experience," Quan said. It's like putting "subwoofers on ears."

According to Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMI, ViviTouch offers a "cross-neuron experience." Listeners experience sound as an actual physical sensation – the film stimulates the movement of a muscle, responding to sound in real time and "emoting a physical sensation that can be felt through the skin around the ears."

Developing ViviTouch technology required finding the perfect dielectric films, electrodes, frames and adhesives. All of the elements are dependent on each other, so if you change one, the whole thing changes, she said.

The film in particular had to meet high humidity and temperature requirements. Silicones offer the best option so far, but better materials that are easier to process and offer greater diametric properties, are still needed, Quan said.

After years of development and scale-up, EAP technology is finally entering the marketplace, she said.

In 2011, AMI marketed a case for Apple Inc.'s fourth-generation iPod Touch that used ViviTouch technology.

The technology also has the potential to be used in high-efficiency electricity generators and large-area sensors, Quan said.

Antec 2013 was held April 21-25 in Cincinnati.