However responsive they are, virtual keyboards lack one key facet -- the feel of the keys that touch typists use to track their typing. Now, a company has developed a tactile layer that actually has keyboard buttons rising out of a touchscreen when needed.
The company is Fremont, Calif.-based Tactus Technology. On its Web site, the company says its tactile interface enables "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."
The company said that, when the physical buttons are enabled, users can type and even rest their fingers on the buttons, as they would on any physical keyboard.
Unlike other haptic or touch solutions, Tactus said, its solution is not a trick using vibration or simulation, but incorporates microfluidic technology that is triggered when needed.
The tactile layer replaces the top layer of the display stack, known as the lens, the window, or cover glass. It is the same thickness as the layer it replaces, works with existing touch-sensitive technologies, and has what the company described as minimal power consumption. The layer can also fit into the appropriate screen size, from smartphone to TV screen, and button shapes, sizes, and locations can be customized.
The company said its Tactile Layer is the "world's first deformable tactile surface," and that its solution now permits the screen and the keyboard to be combined more completely than previously.
Tactus is working in partnership with a variety of companies, including Redwood City, Calif.-based Touch Revolution, the largest manufacturer of glass projected capacitive multi-touch screens. The technology is envisioned for a range of devices, including smartphones, tablets, e-book readers, gaming devices, personal navigation devices, remote controls, medical devices, automotive displays and industrial test equipment.
Gaming Controls, Navigation
A prototype Android tablet with the technology is being demonstrated at Display Week 2012, currently taking place in Boston, which presents the newest and most innovative display technologies, and the company was chosen by the Society for Information Display for that occasion.
Tactus was also selected as a top 10 finalist in the Consumer Electronics Association's Eureka Park Challenge, an event held in conjunction with the National Science Foundation to recognize the most innovative new technologies.
The technology can also be used for shapes other than buttons, and Tactus said that gaming controls and navigation are some of the requests they've had from customers. The CEO, Craig Ciesla, has also told news media that a dynamic, physical surface raises the possibility of "a number of different user interfaces and experiences." The first products are expected to be released by the middle of next year.
Screens, especially those on mobile devices, appear to be on the edge of a radical transformation. In addition to Tactus' approach, there are bendable screens being demonstrated, as well super-high definition and 3-D screens, both with and without glasses.