The near ubiquity of the iPhone and other touch-screen smart-phones has meant the rapid decline of tactile buttons from our lives. The trade-off has been bigger screens and more dynamic virtual buttons. What if there was a way to get the best of both worlds?
A new startup tech company called Tactus Technology has developed a thin "Tactile Layer that lies on top of a touchscreen instead of the regular surface. Unlike glass screen covers, the Tactile Layer is composed of fluid-filled micro-channels which can redirect liquid to create temporary buttons.
The idea was first though up by Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla in 2007. In a promotional video he says he was impressed by the original iPhone's beauty but preferred the physical buttons on his Blackberry.
"As human beings we really want to be able to feel it we really want it to have tactility," he says.
According to Ciesla, the Tactile Layer works extremely well without using up your battery.
"If we look at high daily usage--say 100 times per day--we use less than 1% of a typical smartphone battery," explains 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."
The company has already put together a tech demo in which an iPhone features a physical keypad and a tablet has a real QWERTY keyboard. The technology will likely make typing and dialing easier and faster on touch-screens, but the possibilities go far beyond that.
"For the first generation of technology, the position of the buttons are pre-configured [in the factory]," Ciesla told Fast Company. "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."
While the first generation of Tactile Layer equipped devices (which Ciesla believes will become available in 2013) would likely only feature tactile keyboards and number pads, a second generation could extend to third party applications. This means that individual developers would create their own tactile buttons, shaping the screen with their own software.
Further in the future the same technology could be applied to pretty much anything, from coffee machines to cars.
"Honestly, all the ways to use our technology that we have not yet thought of!" Ciesla told Fast Company. "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."