The Tactus touchscreen with magically disappearing buttons was an enormous success at this year’s 2013 Consumer Electronic Show. Anyone passing by booth #75110 was enthralled by the sight of buttons popping up from the surface of a seemingly standard Android tablet (video). Amazingly, on command, these bubble-like buttons can recede back into the flat screen within seconds. What is even more exciting is we could be seeing these hitting shelves by next Fall, as the company is set to begin production late this year.
How do they work?
Most touchscreens, like your phone, can be broken down to four main layers.
1.The first layer is the casing, which holds the battery.
2.On top of that lies the printed circuit board or pcb.
3.The pcb is covered by a touch sensor and lcd layer.
4.Finally, everything is topped by a thin layer of glass or plastic.
Tactus replaces the glass or plastic (4th) layer with their Tactile Layer panel. This panel consists of a few smaller sub-layers. The top layer of the panel is what Tactus calls an “optically clear polymer”. Underneath this top layer are tiny little micro valves beneath where the buttons would be. These tiny valves (literally 200 micrometers in diameter), contain a very special fluid. This fluid has an optical index of refraction that matches the surrounding material, in other words, the valves cannot be seen when the light of the lcd is on.
This is the part where the word microfluidics gets thrown around. Don’t let the word scare you, all it means is the science of controlling fluids that are put in very small spaces, in this case, on the micro scale. When the valves are activated by, say, pressing the qwerty keyboard button on your screen, they ‘release' their magical liquid. This pressurized liquid pushes up against the screen, forms into 'tixels' (tactile pixels) and bam. The ‘lumpy’ keyboard suddenly appears.
The rising and falling of the buttons uses a negligible amount of power and is controlled by the Tactile Controller (which interfaces with the processor of the touchscreen device). The simple controller is usually located within the 1st layer casing and can be developed and programmed to bring Tactus technology to a seemingly unlimited number of devices.
Why do we need buttons?
Putting aside the fact that it is incredibly entertaining to watch buttons suddenly materialize and subsequently disappear on a touchscreen, many have questioned the importance of this new technology. In the words of Tactus founder and CEO Craig Ciesla,
"As human beings we really want to be able to feel things, we want that tactility....Its not just about creating qwerty keyboards, its about creating a dynamic, physical surface that can create different shapes and objects anywhere on your touchscreen or device"
Think of all the surfaces we use on a daily basis that are filled with buttons: phones, remotes, game controllers, even car door panels. Now imagine all of those surfaces as sleek flat touchscreens that morph and pop into whatever customized interface you need or desire in that moment. More importantly, as Matt Burns of Tech Crunch mused, imagine the possibilities of a bubble wrap app.
Still not convinced lumpy keyboards matter? On a more serious note, Tactus could also be opening up the world of touchscreens to an entirely new community of people. At the 2009 CES, Stevie Wonder publicly asked electronics manufacturers to consider the visually impaired (numbering 21.5 million in the US according to NHIS) when designing devices. Physical buttons suddenly give these millions of people the ability to interact with touchscreens, something that was once impossible.
How this technology develops will be a fundamental guiding force of the future, as touchscreen module revenue is set to double to 31.9 billion by 2018 (NPD DisplaySearch Touch Panel Market Analysis). Though Tactus seems to be right at the forefront of their field, it would be a mistake to believe that they are there alone. Companies like Senseg, Artificial Muscle, Disney Research, and even Apple have all devoted a considerable amount of research to advanced haptic feedback on touchscreens. After witnessing the clear success Tactus has had at CES, they will certainly feel pressure to complete their alpha prototypes and release their own competing products into the market. Tactus may mark just the beginning of a whole new world of touch interface, or as one of their most recent ads explains, "A world of dynamic touchscreens".