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A microscopic image of solitons being researched at the University of Colorado Boulder.
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Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder are blending physics with life, and soon people could be comparing their phone screens to fish.

Not actual fish. However, new solutions for digital display technology have an uncanny resemblance to a school of fish when looked at under a microscope.

The liquid crystals scientists are researching are able to twist and shift their motion at a moment’s notice because of electric-field induced disruptions in the orientations of the molecules that make up the solutions of liquid crystals.

When a liquid crystal solution is prepared just right, the molecules begin twisting together. The new structure is known as a soliton, which could end up creating new possibilities for human-to-device interactions with smart displays.

Hayley Sohn, a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering at CU Boulder, is the lead author of “Schools of skyrmions with electrically tunable elastic interactions” published Oct. 18 on nature.com.

“The idea for me was fueled by connection to everyday things like our touch screens and the science behind these applications that exist and are well established could be used for other research questions,” Sohn said.

Ivan Smalyukh, a professor of physics at CU Boulder, believes the new displays could take the communication for humans and computers to an entirely new level.

“What comes to my mind as a possibility is you might have seen some artists can use their hands to make different pictures that are very beautiful, and I was intrigued on how they do it. There could be new ways of doing new forms of art with liquid crystal displays,” Smalyukh said.

“When you simply touch, the computer knows yes or no, but what if instead when you touch something unexpected can happen, which can be beautiful and lead to certain interesting patterns which could propagate?” Smalyukh said.

The solitons could be used for touch screens, but also other technology such as television screens. Sohn notes there are numerous options for application.

“There are a lot of possibilities and we don’t really know yet what the extent of what we can do with this technology, which is cool in itself because there’s a lot more to be explored, but we are confident based on what we are seeing now that it will add to the field.”

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