Touchscreen prototype with appearing and disappearing keys unveiled

A California based company has come up with a prototype Android tablet that has an appearing and disappearing haptic feedback user interface at a user’s command.

Updated: Jun 07, 2012, 13:51 PM IST

Washington: A California based company has come up with a prototype Android tablet that has an appearing and disappearing haptic feedback user interface at a user’s command.

The “keys”, of the Tactus Technology prototype, can rise out of the touchscreen to provide a tactile guide for both placement of your fingers and for feedback to confirm your selection.

These keys can be dismissed and recede back into the touchscreen without barely a hint that they were even there.

The technology is based on “microfluidics” beneath the surface of a fairly ordinary-looking touchscreen are a number of channels that can be arrange in any pattern a manufacturer desires, and a small reservoir of fluid (a special type of oil that allows the channels to be invisible, for the most part).

To form the shapes of the keys, a tiny amount of fluid is pumped through the channels, which raises a deformable membrane covering the surface of the touchscreen.

For now, the channels need to be made in a predetermined patter — say, an outline of a QWERTY keyboard for a tablet — but the long-term goal would be to have much finer control over a wide-ranging variety of patterns, so different apps and configurations can all take advantage of the potential for offering greater physical feedback.

If this doesn’t sound entirely intuitive, there’s a good reason — there’s really no other technology on the market like this, and it’s exactly the kind of thing you need to see and touch to really understand.

Even in its extreme alpha state, the few minutes spent trying the prototype unit showed that Tactus has some intriguing technology on hand, though it``ll need fine-tuning before it can be a viable option for consumers.

The key outlines did provide some feedback as to where individual keys start and end, but the physical act of "pressing" a key didn``t provide much feedback yet.

Much of the time, it felt as though the capacitive touchscreen was triggered before one had a chance to feel the travel of the fluid-filled area. Even though the technology isn’t ready for prime time, it was pretty fascinating to see a set of keys rise up out of what appears to be a bog-standard touchscreen.

Still, once you notice the outlines of where the keys appear and disappear, they’re hard to un-see (though we expect future versions will more naturally integrate the microfluid channels).

There’s other limitations as well, at least for now, once the fluid channels are built into a piece of hardware, they can’t be changed.

VP of business development Nate Saal said that customization of the tactile response was one of the mainbenefits of the fluid-based system, saying that “you can change the pressure, you can change the resistance, and allow people to customize the feel, something you can’t do on a physical keyboard with physical buttons.”

The result is that “the end user gets to choose what feel they like.” Down the line, once the technology has further progressed, the team thinks that the fluid system will allow screens to measure variations in pressure, giving the buttons have a sort of “analog” response like most popular video game controllers.

Another benefit of this system is low power consumption. Ciesla said that on an average day of use, his team expects “less than two percent battery drain for the whole day.”

While describing the system, he noted that “it takes a second or two for the buttons to come up, and then they stay up, our controller shuts off, and the keys stay up indefinitely.”

This makes the system “"incredibly power efficient, because all you need is that brief second to get the keyboard on, and then it stays on.”