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Surprising Science

New Touchscreen Features Disappearing 3D Keys

A California company has developed new ‘microfluidics’ technology in which fluid sacs rise up like buttons from a flat touchscreen, then seemingly disappear on a user’s command. 

What’s the Latest Development?

The California company Tactus Technology has created a new user interface for touchscreens in which keys rise up out of the screen, providing a tactile sensation when typing. “…at a user’s command, ‘keys’ 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 design relies on channels arranged beneath the screen, down which oils flow into small sacs that function like keys.  

What’s the Big Idea?

In the battle for smartphone hardware, the flat touchscreen (iPhone and Android) appears to have won out over tactile keyboards (Blackberry). And despite the limitations of Tactus’ prototype, a technology that allowed for both options would be superior. “For now, the [fluid] channels need to be made in a predetermined pattern—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.” The company is also looking to integrate the technology into automobiles, allowing drivers to better orient themselves with a car’s controls. 

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