MIT Technology Review

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Smart Phone with the Mumps

What if your touchscreen could grow a physical keyboard?

You love touchscreens. You love buttons. Can you have it both ways?

A company called Tactus thinks you can. Take a look-see:

As Tactus puts it pretty succinctly on its site: “Tactus provides a new dimension of user interface with a fundamentally unique solution: application-controlled, completely transparent physical buttons that rise up from the touch-screen surface on demand. With the buttons enabled, users can push and type or rest their fingers as they would with any physical button or keyboard. When the buttons are disabled, they recede into the screen, becoming invisible and leaving a smooth, seamless flat touch-screen with maximum viewing area.”

It all relies fundamentally on technology called “microfluidics,” which the Verge reports is a special type of oil that raise a membrane to create the temporary keys. The Verge went hands-on with the tech, which is classified as “extreme alpha at this point,” and concluded that while it certainly needed work before being ready for market, it showed some real promise.

Tactus’s VP of business development pointed out that the Tactus keyboards would be even better, in some ways, than traditional ones. As he put it: "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." Another cool thing about the tech is it draws down very little power.

I’m of two minds about Tactus’s tech. On the one hand, I’m often frustrated with my iPhone’s keyboard. But the lack of a tactile experience is the least of my frustration. Principally, it’s the fact that the iPhone keyboard is small that bothers me. An iPad would solve that, I suppose (but I can’t carry an iPad in my pocket, now, can I). Secondarily, I’m frustrated that I can’t rest my fingers on a touchscreen without it typing away. But it seems to me that simpler technology than Tactus's--a pressure-sensitive touchscreen--could solve that particular problem.

If real tactility were my principal complaint with the touchscreen keyboard, I doubt these mumps would really satisfy my craving for the pleasant brace-and-click, the satisfying clackity-clack, of the keyboard on my laptop. The pleasures (and frustrations) of the traditional keyboard are unique to the traditional keyboard, I think. Any attempts to replicate it will have an ersatz quality about them, inevitably. (I’ve written before about my search for the perfect keyboard.)

I’ll have to reserve final judgment on Tactus until I get to try it out myself. But in the meantime, I’m more interested in ways touchscreens enable us to reimagine what the keyboard could be, rather than reach back to prior iterations of what it was. Take, for instance, Microsofts cool vision of a smart virtual keyboard. Whereas most keyboards force you to position your hands in the right place, a smart keyboard would use multitouch technology to detect your hand placement, and then situate the virtual keyboard accordingly. My hunch is that in touchscreens, we may do best to cut our tactile losses and instead envision the new possibilities enabled by the virtual.