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Summary:

Not everyone wants a touch display for input causing some to cling on to devices with physical buttons. What you could have the best of both worlds: Buttons that rise up from a flat touch screen as needed? It’s not science fiction; it’s science!

tactus

Starting in 2007, capacitive touchscreen technology began revolutionizing first the smartphone market, and now the tablet market. Not everyone wants a flat touch display for input, however, causing some to cling to devices with physical buttons. What if you could have the best of both worlds with buttons that rise up from a flat touch screen as needed? That’s the promise Tactus Technology plans to deliver on.

Here’s how the company describes its solution:

Tactus provides a new dimension to touchscreens by enabling real, physical buttons that rise up from the surface on demand, and then recede back into the screen, leaving a perfectly flat, transparent surface when gone.

It may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually just science. I was skeptical after viewing the company’s own video demonstrations, but The Verge got a hands-on (literally!) demonstration at SID Display Week. It’s the real deal, although it needs some work. That’s not surprising as Tactus plans to work with equipment makers starting next year.

After the demonstration, The Verge explains how the “magic morphing” keys actually work:

“The technology is based on “microfluidics” — beneath the surface of a fairly ordinary-looking touchscreen are a number of channels that can be arrange in any pattern a manufacturer desires, and a small reservoir of fluid (a special type of oil that allows the channels to be invisible, for the most part). To form the shapes of the keys, a tiny amount of fluid is pumped through the channels, which raises a deformable membrane covering the surface of the touchscreen.”

The concept is interesting; more so if it eventually works as advertised. Just like the touchscreen of today can display many controls, keys or buttons, a Tactus screen of the future could do the same — but in three dimensions. And the technology could apply to any number of applications besides smartphones and tablets: Think television remotes, game controllers, home appliances and more.

Tactus says the technology is a simple replacement for equipment makers, who add the membrane to the top of the touch screen. And it’s supposed to be power efficient, although the company doesn’t specify the power requirements. That’s still an open question on what the technology does to the visual quality of the screen itself. The fluid is supposed to be nearly invisible, but I suspect it will affect how crisp a display looks.

Still, there’s promise here in the product, and it could provide the best of both worlds: Touchscreens paired with buttons on demand.

  1. Fantastic! I can’t wait to see durability testing on this.

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  2. Derek Martin Tuesday, June 5, 2012

    You’ll be touching plastic, not glass :(

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  3. Because the fluid has some index of refraction and in the domed buttons will be variable in thickness, there will be some sort of lens effect or distortion. Their website shows clean edge square buttons as well. Not sure how this happens. They look like mock-ups and it’s unfortunate that they are probably creating an illusion that they can’t deliver. The domes would be enough.

    The other aspect would be the response time. Both to the buttons rising up, and their returning to flat. This would probably be power dependent, faster pump-more power.

    Then of course you’ll have clowns who think it’s fun to pop the bubbles. Then someone else will get worked up over whatever “chemicals” are in the fluid. And so on.

    Best of luck to them. It’s a great idea and I hope they survive the early adopter phase and can protect whatever IP they have. Microfluidics is a fairly popular area in the medical device field these days and there are a few people out there with the chops to either copy or improve on this.

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  4. This is awesome! This is the first real innovation in smartphone form factors since the original iPhone

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  5. Geoff Arnold Tuesday, June 5, 2012

    If the buttons can be made small enough, the potential exists for creating Braille labels on a touch screen. Even with coarse-grained controls, this offers real potential for visually handicapped users….

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    1. Love that idea, Geoff!

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  6. Didn’t we all think that this would come around some day? Technology has things moving at lightning speed. Corning has bendable glass. Huge computers displays are transparent like windows. Doesn’t it make sense that fluid dynamics would come to the surface? If not the the way this company is demonstrating it, but in another? It’s amazing.

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  7. Looks like this has been patented already:

    Three-dimensional display
    5,717,423
    A human/machine interface system that presents information in a three-dimensional and visual form and is optionally capable of receiving input. The Three-Dimensional Display comprises a display shape with visual displays that is movable to provide visual and three-dimensional representative imagery. An optional method for sensing input can be added to allow user interaction with the display. A number of these displays could be arrayed together and driven by appropriate circuitry to present to the user visual and physical representation upon which the user can act to communicate back to the machine.

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  8. aloanuntilpayday Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    Damn, imagine the different variations of games and their applications that can result from dynamic buttons?!

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