For users who want to retain the touch and feel of a traditional keyboard on their touchscreen device, Tactus Technology has unveiled a tactile layer component that creates dynamic physical buttons that rise out of the surface of the screen. The haptic user interface lets users see and feel the buttons for the experience of operating a physical keyboard.
The buttons recede back into the touchscreen when no longer needed, leaving no hint of their presence, the Fremont, Calif.-based company said. Microfluidic technology is used to create the physical buttons on the touchscreen.
Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla told BYTE he came up with the idea when the iPhone first came out and "I was thinking about how I could do without my Blackberry and keyboard, and at that moment I thought this microfluidic technology could solve the problem and be the solution."
No extra thickness is added to standard touchscreens because the tactile layer is a completely flat and transparent surface that "replaces a layer of the already existing display stack," according to a press release announcing the first demonstration of the component on a prototype Google Android tablet. "If you were to take an iPhone, for example, and take apart the display there are three parts: the display, touch sensor and window or cover lens ... we're only changing the third one,'' that a user touches, explained Ciesla. This design makes it possible to add the tactile layer without adding any extra thickness to touchscreens, he said.
The technology "is more than the ability to create a QWERTY keyboard," he said. "Our technology is a way of having a dynamic, physical surface that integrates as a touchscreen, and with that capability a number of different user interfaces and experiences can be developed."
Although Ciesla declined to comment on where the tactile layer technology will first be deployed, he said the first product will roll out in mid 2013, and that customers have expressed interest in it for gaming controls and navigation.
Chris Hazelton, research director of mobile and wireless at 451 Research, said he questions how flexible the screen will be, whether it will be easy for developers to leverage the technology, and how many different types of applications it can support.
He also questioned what the impact will be on battery life. "A large touchscreen already drains the battery significantly, so a screen with constant button adjustment is bound to also," he said.
Hazelton called the technology "very interesting, and if it ... is able to replicate a keyboard or any large percentage of user interfaces for all applications on the user device, I think it will be powerful."