When I was ready to buy my first smartphone, I chose the Motorola Droid over the iPhone, mostly because the Droid featured a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. I had gotten used to having a full keypad after owning three feature phones that either slid-out or flipped-open to reveal rows of keys. Today the only time I miss having physical buttons on my phone is when I’m texting while either driving (I know, I know) or drinking (though obviously not while drinking AND driving). That said, it would be nice to have the option of typing away on our phones without taking our eyes off the road, the beer, or the pretty lady sitting across from you on your expensive dinner date. That’s what Tactus is trying to do: bring back the buttons.
From the Tactus website:
Tactus Technology is the developer of a new tactile user interface for touch-screen devices. Tactus provides a new dimension of user interface with a fundamentally unique solution: application-controlled, completely transparent physical buttons that rise up from the touch-screen surface on demand. With the buttons enabled, users can push and type or rest their fingers as they would with any physical button or keyboard. When the buttons are disabled, they recede into the screen, becoming invisible and leaving a smooth, seamless flat touch-screen with maximum viewing area.
As you can see from the perspective shot above, Tactus plans on giving our touchscreens an extra layer to allow for what-looks-like bubble-wrap buttons to appear over on-screen buttons. Guests and tech writers at the Society for Information Display (SID) Conference this week who have gotten to see the technology in person have had mainly good things to say about it. It doesn’t appear to hinder the sensibility of the touch screen. On a current Android handset, it is estimated that using Tactus for all key-based input would only use about 2% of the battery’s resources, so less than many fancy Live Wallpapers. Though it’s always difficult to tell how great a technology can be when it’s being demonstrated by creators, this one seems to at least have the foundation to become near-ubiquitous one day. Though I can imagine a not-too-distant future in which Apple buys up Tactus, the rights and patents to this technology, and its developers. They’d probably sit on the idea for a few years before releasing the technology on all of their devices and claiming responsibility for another “magical’ innovation.
When I first saw the pictures and videos, I assumed there was some kind of internal pressurizer mechanisms or air-flow technology that would physically push the bubbles up with force. After searching for a bit, I found a great explanation of this technology by Pete Murray at SingularityHub. He explains how the layer will be filled with some kind of “micro fluid”:
The Tactile Layer replaces the glass or plastic that normally sits on the touchscreen sensor and display. The layer is about 0.75mm to 1mm thick, and at its top sits a deformable, clear layer 200 nm thick. Beneath the clear layer a fluid travels through micro-channels and is pushed up through tiny holes, deforming the clear layer to create buttons or shapes. The buttons or patterns remain for however long they are needed, just for a few seconds or for hours when you’re using your iPad to write that novel. And because the fluid is trapped inside the buttons, they can remain for however long without additional power consumption. They come or go pretty quickly, taking only a second to form or disappear. And when they’re no longer needed, the buttons recede and you’re left with a touchscreen indistinguishable from any other Tactus-less touchscreen.
I’ll leave you with a video from Tactus’ website where they show off the new screen technology. There is no definite word on when the first devices with Tactus will be released, but the company has already demonstrated the capabilities on an existing Android Tablet and reports working with hardware developers in the phone, tablet, GPS, e-reader, home theatre, and mobile gaming markets. If you’re a fledgling Android tablet or phone manufacturer, now may be the time to lock up a deal with Tactus to give your new device something to make it stand out from the crowd, and the neutral position of flat touchscreens.