Holding your tablet computer you’re astonished as physical keys suddenly rise out of the screen, as if its alive. The QWERTY keys are hard and knobby just like a real keyboard. You type out an email and when you’re finished the keys then recede back into the flat screen, like a creature going back to sleep.
This wasn’t from a rerun of Star Trek. It was from CES 2013 in Las Vegas. One of the most nifty and innovative products on display was the morphing touch screen made by California-based Tactus Technology. Their Tactile Layer surface uses a technology known as microfluidics, where small amounts of fluid are pumped through tiny channels on a layer of the screen. Fluid pressure causes set areas of the top screen layer to raise into the hard bumps of a QWERTY keyboard.
Micah Yairi, co-founder of Tactus and its Chief Technology Officer, explained that when the user is finished, a command is sent, the fluid is withdrawn, the pressure lowered and “you're left with a perfectly flat screen.”
He added that “One of the nice advantages of this is that the height of the buttons can be controlled by how much fluid you put into them. The user can determine how high the buttons are and how soft or hard they are.”
The tactile touch screens open a world of possible uses. They could increase typing accuracy, enhance topographical maps and assist blind users of the devices. And it enables those possibilities by bringing something that regular, tactile flat screens lack: orientation. “When you type your body is making subtle adjustments to make sure you're on the right place,” Yairi explained. “If you just had a perfectly flat screen you don't have that ability to feel where you are before pressing down. And we bring that essential orientation.”
Yairi said Tactus will be ready to start production of the microfluidic screens in 2014.
So how much would a microfluidic iPad touch screen cost? Yairi couldn’t
comment. But Glen Fitzpatrick of Micralyne in Edmonton, offered a general cost estimate. His company is a pioneer in microfluidics and builds devices using microfluidics for medical diagnostics. Fitzpatrick said the tactile screen fluid system “is not so novel but the media in which the fluid is embedded is visionary.” Nonetheless, Fitzpatrick thinks the product could be made for a reasonable cost.
As technology advances, keyboards are behaving like amorphous creatures. Some are changing their shapes, like flexible keyboards. They enable users to roll up the silicon or rubber keyboards and use them on any flat surface. Many are now waterproof as well and connect to a tablet with bluetooth.
Other keyboard technologies do away with form entirely. Holographic keyboards where lasers project a keyboard onto any flat surface, have been around for a little over a decade. Sensors detect where the fingers move and translate the signals into keystrokes.
The new microfluidic keyboard represents the most advanced variation yet: embodying form where there is none to better suit user needs. And they point to an intriguing future for technology. If a keyboard can form out of seemingly nothing then perhaps other tools and interfaces can too?