The orange goo in my hands looks feels like Silly Putty and smells like a faintly expired peanut brittle, but this goop is no geeky toy, and it could save your smartphone from the mortal enemy of any and every gadget: a simple drop.
It’s part of a field called “impact protection,” and this area is worth millions of dollars.
Hardly a surprise, especially when you realise that more and more people are buying smartphones, and these devices are susceptible to easy breaks when they come into contact with the ground from heights.
They are mostly touch-screens, after all, as the button-based dumb-phone is more or less dead, whether you like it or not.
As such, almost every mobile handset coming out is designed with a big screen and very few buttons, with thin edges and a flat back. It’s a pretty consistent design, and one that is prone to slipping out of hands and dropping on the floor.
People always think it’s the screen that they have to be worried about in a fall, but it’s really the corners and edges of the device.
When a smartphone falls from your hands, it will more likely hit one of these parts, and when the phone is the only thing absorbing the energy from the handset colliding with the hard ground, that spreads through the rest of the handset and causes the screen to smash.
That’s why there are so many broken screens out there, and so many people dragging their finger along broken glass when they use their damaged smartphones.
We drop phones so much that “impact protection” is serious business, and when you buy a case designed for this, chances are your pockets struggle. These cases are often big, bulky, and designed to take a beating, leaving your device well protected, and your pockets, well, as blown out as your once slim phone looked.
But Tech21 is approaching impact protection from a different angle, choosing not to make the case bigger, but to make a different material absorb the energy when the phone lands on the ground.
Inside Tech21’s cases – which head to Apple, Harvey Norman, and Vodafone stores now – is a material called D3O, a patented orange material that contains a polymer with an unusual molecular structure, capable of absorbing energy and spreading it upon impact.
In its liquid-like putty stage, which is what it sits in as we move the goo between our fingers, it’s just like silly putty, and you can see it bounce, stretch, and break easily.
Once D3O is injected into a case mould, however, it takes on a different use altogether: from here, drops can be better protected against, as the case and the special polymer deal with the impact in better ways, and in a case that doesn’t turn your pockets into a heavy backpack.
There’s a reason why the military is using D3O in armour designs, reducing reliance on the well-tested Kevlar fibre, and it’s because this new material is light and very good at reducing the impact energy from firearms.
This orange energy resistant material is also being used in motorcycle clothing protection, sports gear, and even shoes.
In a phone, it makes a lot of sense, and while it’s not enough to completely protect your device from being dropped in any situation, every bit helps, and when you’ve spent over $500 on a smartphone, a $50 case seems like nothing.
There’s also the screen itself, which while rated for scratch-resistance, isn’t necessarily protected against drops, jabs, and knocks.
We’ve spoken about this before, but not everyone gets it, and believes that the resistance provided by Corning’s Gorilla Glass should be enough to stop the keys in their pockets from destroying the screen on their smartphone. Sorry people, but it just doesn’t work that way. Owners of smartphones have been clued into screen protectors for some time, and these can help.
This week, we demoed Tech21’s developments on the subject, which incorporate three levels of resistance, two of which spread the energy from the jab in a way that parts the molecules and apparently allows them to rejoin, making it harder to scratch.
We’re still investigating how this works, but once again it’s a case of every bit helps, and for a $20 or $30 skin, we can see people really taking a chance and trying them.
What we saw this week from Tech21 certainly impressed us enough, especially when you realise that there is proper science behind this, and not just excess plastic, which some of the screen covers and resistant cases often feel like.
In fact, after several tests with the Galaxy S4 being dropped in a slimline case, this technology seems like it’s worth checking out for anyone who is concerned that their new smartphone might take a tumble.
Currently, the Tech21 range is available for the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, HTC One, and several products in the Samsung Galaxy line-up, with prices ranging from $29 to $70 depending on the type of case design you buy.