A keyboard that rises up from flat touch screens

A startup creates a physical keyboard for touch-screen devices, like smartphones or tablets, that appears when you need to type and disappears when you're done. CNET's Sumi Das tries it out.

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A few weeks ago, right before the new BlackBerry 10 phones were announced, I dragged a cameraman to San Francisco's Financial District during lunch hour and asked random strangers to name BlackBerry's best feature . Care to guess what the results of my highly unscientific poll were? Even iPhone and Android users agreed -- the famed keyboard is BlackBerry's top trait.

Increasingly, we "mobile device addicts" are favoring our smartphones and tablets over our traditional computers to meet our digital demands. Trouble is, a lot of us still despise typing on these beloved touch-screen devices. One Silicon Valley startup has created a new kind of keyboard that could help reduce typos and other fat-fingered mistakes.

Fremont, Calif.-based, Tactus Technology uses microfluidics to make physical keys bubble up from the surface of a touch screen when you need to type and disappear, when you don't. Microfluidics may sound foreign, but if you've operated an inkjet printer you've used the technology.

So how do keys appear out of nowhere? It starts with a panel that has channels built into it. The channels are filled with a non-toxic fluid. By increasing the pressure in the channels, the fluid pushes up the surface of the panel, creating an actual key. What's more, Tactus says the pressure will be adjustable, so the keys could feel a bit squishy, like a gel pack or they could be harder, like the plastic keys on a laptop.

Tactus demo-ed a working prototype for us, but they're still refining the technology. Right now, there's an audible noise when the keys appear. It should be silent in the final version. And the surface has to be rugged. You wouldn't want to spring a leak, after all. Durability tests are part of that process since Tactus needs to guarantee the surface can't be punctured by a newly manicured fingernail or a 3-year-old trying to scribble on your smartphone with a pen.

Currently, the technology is limited in that it's a fixed single array. You wouldn't be able to use the Tactus keyboard in both portrait and landscape mode, for example. But the goal is to make the third generation of the product dynamic. "The vision that we had was not just to have a keyboard or a button technology, but really to make a fully dynamic surface," says cofounder Micah Yairi, "So you can envision the entire surface being able to raise and lower depending on what the application is that's driving it." Meaning it could display a keyboard when you're typing an e-mail, a number pad when you're dialing a phone number, and perhaps letter tiles when you're playing Words With Friends.

Tactus says it wants to be in production by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014. Executives were mum about which companies they're talking to. Just one partnership has been announced to date, with Touch Revolution, a Bay Area company that makes touch displays. Tactus VP Nate Saal says, "There are more and more touch screens being integrated in devices... from your mobile phone, cell phone, into refrigerators and appliances and I think those are all opportunities for Tactus to really improve the interface and usability of those devices."

Tactus took it's prototype to CES in January. Among the attendees who tried out the technology was a man who was visually impaired. His reaction upon feeling the keys under his fingers? "Amazing."

About the author

    Sumi Das has been covering technology since the original dot-com boom. She was hired by cable network TechTV in 1998 to produce and host a half-hour program devoted to new and future technologies. Prior to CNET, Sumi served as a Washington DC-based correspondent, covering breaking news for CNN. She reported live from New Orleans and contributed to CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which earned the network a Peabody Award. She also files in-depth tech stories for BBC News which are seen by a primarily international audience.

     

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