When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, audiences were wowed by the simplicity and the functionality of the phone, but many complained about the absence of physical keys. Unless you were looking directly at the phone, it was impossible to tell what numbers you were dialing or letters you were typing. Besides an iPhone setting that plays sounds when keys are pressed, Apple included no other source of feedback that could tell you when you're touching a button or key.
Five years later, the iPhone is the most popular smartphone in the world, but using the digital keyboard is still not as satisfying as using a physical keypad. One company thinks it has the answer: On Tuesday, Fremont, Calif.-based Tactus Technology unveiled its answer to the touchscreen keyboard at SID Display Week 2012, showing off a prototype of an interface with appearing and disappearing keys that rise out of the touchscreen to provide a guide for your fingers and feedback to confirm the selection.
For years, people believed that the world was flat. They were wrong, Tactus said in its introductory video for the product, which is also featured at the bottom of the page. For years, people believed that touchscreens were only flat. They were wrong. Welcome to the new world of dynamic touchscreens.
On a prototype Android tablet, Tactus Technology demonstrated how, at a user's command, keys rise out of the screen when they're needed, and recede back into the touchscreen when they're not.
The origin of Tactus goes back to 2007, said Craig Ciesla, CEO of Tactus Technology. Looking at the iPhone and all the elegance of that user interface, I also realized that I like my Blackberry with the buttons. What a tactile touchscreen is, it's giving you the ability to have physical buttons that come out of the screen without giving up anything in a normal touchscreen. That's been our goal from Day 1, is to make the integration of our technology very easy for our customers.
Continue Reading Below
The technology is based on the idea of microfluidics, which describes how beneath the surface of a typical-looking touchscreen are channels that can be arranged in any pattern a manufacturer wants, and how a small reservoir of oil is pumped through the channels to create a deformable membrane that covers the surface of the touchscreen.
Tactus' CEO Ciesla explains that while the technology can create any type of shape or button, his company is still looking to apply and feature this kind of flexible user interface beyond just smartphones and tablets.
As human beings, we really want to be able to feel things, Ciesla said. We really want that tactility. The vision for Tactus is that our technology has the ability to be the next-generation user interface really anywhere you see a touchscreen, for example gaming, appliances, navigation, automotive. It's not just about creating QWERTY keyboards, it's about creating a dynamic, physical surface that can create different shapes and objects anywhere on your touchscreen or any other device.
The first Tactus products will become available in the middle of 2013, according to the company, but we might actually see this technology featured sooner than that. A similar technology dealing with advanced haptics and feedback is reportedly being built for Apple's sixth-generation smartphone, presumably called the iPhone 5.
Apple's Take On Advanced Haptics In Mobile Devices
On May 3, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office released a published patent for an incredibly intelligent multi-tiered haptics system that lets users feel buttons and arrows that magically elevate from the screen, which is accomplished with either sensors, actuators, or both. The entire system is multi-functional, so it can sense and perform actions simultaneously.
A control system of a tiered haptic system may determine the amount of pressure, force, displacement or other physical response associated with the user stimuli, Apple said in its patent filing. For example, a tiered haptic system may distinguish between relatively light contact and a relatively heavy contact on the screen surface. In some embodiments, a tiered haptic system may perform particular tasks depending on the physical response of the stimuli. (This could certainly apply to painting or illustrating apps.)
Apple says its new invention features several elastic screens (made of any suitable material, from elastomers like rubber to polyeurethane or polyester) that are stacked on top of each other, so various arrangements of the signals could create elements of different sizes and shapes. With these layers of elastic sheets, Apple's haptic system can create different types of actuation, including vibration, net displacement, bending, deforming, other modes, or any combination of these elements, on almost any portable Apple device, including iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch devices, and even MacBooks.
Some examples of Apple's technology couple the haptics system with a secondary display screen, audio system or another device entirely, so users can feel buttons connected to TV screens or other devices. This would be extremely useful if Apple ever builds its own television, so any iDevice could create buttons specific to the program you're trying to control (e.g. Blu-ray DVD controls vs. cable TV controls vs. video game controls, etc.).
If this haptics technology isn't unveiled in the iPhone 5, it's likely that a future iPhone will feature Tactus Technology's dynamic touchscreens. If a touchscreen can create physical buttons on a needed basis, all while maintaining its original integrity, there is absolutely no reason to try and make this a reality. Feeling buttons or controls on a smartphone would be extremely useful for completing tasks that typically require a keyboard, but it would also free up companies from a design perspective to eliminate physical buttons on the outside of the phone for software buttons on the inside.
It's an incredible and exciting technology, but we'll just have to wait until later this year or early next year to see how Tactus Technology plans to apply its dynamic touchscreens. But if this really is a hot technology, there's a great chance Apple will rush to get its recently-granted patent into its next iPhone, which is expected to arrive in September or October.