This Sci-Fi Touchscreen Can Give The iPhone Real Buttons

This touchscreen technology grows clickable buttons that disappear again on command, and it can work on any device on the market.

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."

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  • Sardar Mohkim Khan

    Beautiful. It is extremely annoying when the existing Touch methodologies either never or over respond to touch. One thing that i miss out it how do you control the tactile responses? lets say when you have the phone/device in your pocket? Will these panels we replacing the existing screens?

    Also will these buttons appear wherever a contact is made on the Screen?

  • Ben Griffin

    It's encouraging to see technologies in development that begin to address the usability problems with touchscreens. A configurable 3-dimensional surface is a step in the right direction and will certainly help users to locate controls more accurately without having to look at the screen. Ultimately, the goal must be to replicate the physical action and tactile feedback that makes "real" controls so pleasant and intuitive to use i.e. configurable force-travel characteristics.

    The various haptic effects on the market e.g. Imersion and Senseg are better than nothing, but still can't begin to match the feel of a mechanical control.

    If the response time of this fluid pressure system was fast enough, you might be able to achieve some simple tactile feedback in response to finger pressure - I'd be interested to understand the capabilities and limitations in that respect.

  • Michael

    Certainly a brilliant technology in the making........I'm not sure how much detail could be achieved but it would make a pretty cool addition to mms messaging ! This technology would make great adaptive car technology you could have a fully functioning steering wheel in the car that had all your buttons invisibly hidden bellow the surface until needed even voice activated or voice assisted navigation gently illustrating direction under your hands on the wheel....this genius technology with endless applications

  • fred hart

    awesome product and idea, but the TACTUS branding does not reflect their technological ambitions at all

  • Kiki

    I wonder about integration into prosthetics (OK, full disclosure, my original sci-fi thought was about androids that could change facial features). As they become "smarter" and integrate computer technology, I have to imagine a programmable/ malleable layer could be useful.

    Or art stuff. I have to imagine artists could do some amazing installations with this.

  • Whea7

    Patrick, that's actually a pretty great idea.  Braille readouts that can rest on top of a digital screen, changing the braille as the screen changes its display.

  • Patrick Donnelly

    Braile comes to mind.   But I guess that would also be pointless. 

    Gaming is an obvious place to start.