Tactus Tech Adds Tactile Buttons to Touch Screens

By Wesley Fenlon

Tactus Technology's morphing touchscreen is just about as cool as a flexible display and could be the next big thing for touch typing.

If there's one piece of technology we regret missing the chance to touch at CES, it's the Tactus touchscreen. Physical contact is crucial, in this case, because the touchscreen Tactus Technology had on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show offered a groundbreaking fusion of physical keyboard and smooth multitouch surface. Tactus' dynamic touchscreen is indistinguishable from any other smartphone or tablet display at first glance, but when you pop open the software keyboard, small gel bubbles form on the surface of the screen, placing real physical feedback at your fingertips.

No one's been sticking it out with the BlackBerry this long for the software experience, but there are a few text and email addicts who never want to give up the speed and accuracy of a hard keyboard. RIM tried to replicate that with the "SurePress" keyboard on its touchscreen Storm, but pushing down on the screen to create a "click" didn't replicate the feeling of a real keyboard. And now there's the Tactus, which could finally bridge the conflicting desires for physical keys and smooth touch surfaces.

Image Credit: Anandtech

Tactus Technology is designing its tactile panel for OEMs, with the idea that it will replace the existing glass and touch layers that rest atop existing tablets and smartphones. The white paper explains:

"It is essentially a thin, flat, smooth and transparent cover layer varying in thickness from about 0.75mm to 1mm that has certain special properties.

Made of a thin multi-layer stack, the top-most layer consists of an optically clear polymer. A number of micro-holes connect the top layers of the panel to a series of microchannels that run through the underlying substrate. The micro channels are filled with a fluid whose optical index of refraction matches that of the surrounding material, making it fully and evenly transparent when light from the display passes through.

Increasing the fluid pressure causes the fluid to push up through the holes and against the top polymer layer, making it expand in pre-defined locations. This enables an array of physical and completely transparent buttons to rise out of the surface. A small internal controller that interfaces with the processor of the touchscreen device controls the rise and fall of the buttons. The controller allows a proximity sensor or a software application to control the state of the buttons. For example, the buttons could be triggered to rise whenever the software calls for the virtual QWERTY keyboard."

Physical keyboard? Very cool. But the potential for something more? Even cooler. Tactus could theoretically design the gel to come up in any number of different formations. We could see this eventually leading to a braille e-reader, as long as the fluid can form in shifting configurations. Tactus' white paper reveals that the keys are currently limited to a specific formation set during manufacturing, but there's still plenty of variety there:

"The panel size as well as the size, shape and firmness of the buttons are fully customizable. Buttons can be of any shape – circles, rectangles, ovals, squares, long thin lines, or even ring- or donut-shaped. Their height (from high to low) and feel (from soft to rigid) can be precisely controlled. It is possible to create almost any type of button configuration or layout on a panel, and that configuration is set in the manufacturing process. Multiple button sets can also be pre-configured on a single panel, enabling different groups of buttons to be raised at different times, depending on the interface needs of the user."

The panel doesn't draw much power, either, as it only requires energy to raise or lower the fluid, not to hold it in place. Tactus says it can be scaled from a phone on up to a TV screen without adding to the thickness of the original device. They also promise it's durable, which leaves the challenge of integrating the fluid touchscreen into manufacturing. They hope to be manufacturing the screens by the end of the year, but Tactus still has to get paired up with the right device to see its screen take off. Next-gen Nexus 7, please?