Most of us have adjusted to life with touchscreens. They lack tactile feedback, the rubber nubs that enable thoughtless use of our television remotes, but touchscreens create dynamic virtual buttons and open up vital screen real estate. They’re worth the thumb-numbing tradeoff.
But what if we could have both, a dynamic touchscreen with real buttons? Impossible? Not at all.
A startup called Tactus Technology has developed a thin "Tactile Layer" that sits on top of touchscreens in place of the normal surface (it’s no thicker). The Tactile Layer is composed of fluid-filled microchannels which, on command, can alter fluid pressure and redirect the liquid to create blister-like buttons. And it’s remarkably power efficient.
"If we look at high daily usage—say 100 times per day—we use less than 1% of a typical smartphone battery," explains Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla. "This is because our system only consumes power when the button state changes. Once up, the buttons are up and active without power consumption."
In their tech demos, an iPhone has physical number keys, and a tablet has a real QWERTY layout. Theoretically, this technology will enable faster, more accurate typing on touchscreens. But that use case is barely doing the technology justice.
"For the first generation of technology, the position of the buttons are pre-configured [in the factory]," Ciesla tells Co.Design. "But the size, shape, and location can be anywhere on the window—so we are highly flexible and a design tool with which device and UI designers can innovate. Future generations will offer individually controllable buttons—touchable pixels, or Tixels."
In other words, first-generation Tactus tech could enable an iPhone with a physical QWERTY predefined by Apple. Second-generation Tactus tech could enable new button configurations designed by every single application in the App Store. Games could have unique control schemes, sure, but applications could have textures. For the first time ever, software would literally shape hardware.
Now, ready for one last mind-bending trick? The Tactile Layer can work on any sort of product you can imagine, from coffee machines to car doors.
"Honestly, all the ways to use our technology that we have not yet thought of!" writes Ciesla, with an air of earnest hyperbole. "Now that our technology is out in the public, we are excited to learn about all the creative ways our product can be applied to generate new types of user experience."