New screen tech has buttons that rise on command

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.