TouchFire makes the iPad keyboard tactile

A Kickstarter project aims to provide real-keyboard feel without the real keyboard.

In the beginning, back in the 1870s, a typewriter key traveled downward when you struck it because the force was needed to propel a typebar onto the ribbon, thereby printing a character on paper.

Even with the advent of electric typewriters--and, much later, computer keyboards--people liked the keys to move decisively when they struck them. It helped with touch typing and confirmed that your keypress had, indeed, been registered. To this day, "full travel" is one of the most complimentary adjectives you can apply to any keyboard.

And then there's the iPad's zero-travel, on-screen keyboard. Many folks are fine with it. Other people--especially ones who type anything longer than brief e-mails--buy a variety of external keyboards to get back that comfy feel of key travel. (I use and love the one from Logitech and Zagg myself.)

But for all their virtues, external iPad keyboards add bulk to a device that's supposed to effortlessly portable. They also rely on a Bluetooth connection with the tablet, and therefore need to be reacharged. And most cost about $100.

TouchFire keyboard
The TouchFire iPad keyboard overlay. Harry McCracken/CNET

What if you added travel to the iPad's own keyboard?

That's the unique concept behind TouchFire. The "screen-top keyboard" is a piece of clear silicone with molded keys. It sits on top of the iPad, letting the tablet's landscape keyboard show through and allowing you to get at least a hint of classic real-key feel as you type. It's the brainchild of Steve Isaac, a tech-industry veteran whose credits include the pioneering-but-unsuccessful Go tablet of the 1990s, Internet Explorer 1.0, and Windows CE.

Isaac created a prototype of TouchFire and posted it on the Kickstarter crowdfunding site. He sought $10,000 in funding. But the idea proved so compelling that he's received $65,455 in pledges so far. He's is currently working on getting the product manufactured, and plans to ship units to Kickstarter benefactors in December.

After that, Isaac's company will begin selling the gadget to other purchasers for $49. He'll sell it direct and hopes to get it into retail stores. (I suspect that it won't land in the Apple Store--Apple doesn't seem to like to stock third-party products that suggest that the iPad isn't perfect as is--but there are plenty of other establishments that might sell it.)

TouchPad keyboard on Smart Cover
TouchFire can ride on the iPad 2 Smart Cover. Harry McCracken/CNET

Unlike any other iPad keyboard--or, come to think of it, any other iPad accessory, period--the super-thin-and-lightweight TouchFire adds virtually no physical bulk to the tablet's traveling weight. In transit, it can hitch a ride on the inside of the iPad 2's Smart Cover. (It comes with magnetic clips that allow it to stick to the cover, and is also compatible with the original iPad.)

When you want to use it, you just plop it on top of the iPad keyboard. Weights along the edges help it stay put, and tiny cushions provide the travel feel and let touch typists rest their fingers on the home row without accidentally registering keypresses.

If you need to get at the area below the TouchFire for other types of input, such as swiping or pinching, you can quickly fold it out of the way, then unfold it when you need it again.

TouchFire folded out of the way.
The TouchFire folded out of the way. Harry McCracken/CNET

As with any keyboard, the ultimate question is simple: How's it feel? Isaac let me try a prototype, and I enjoyed the experience.

Not surprisingly, it doesn't replicate the full experience of a real keyboard with plastic keytops and nice, clacky mechanical switches. But it's in the same league as more cumbersome external iPad keyboards that use rubberized keys, and eliminates the experience of your fingertips thudding against a piece of hard glass.

Once the first version of TouchFire ships, Isaac told me, he's going to consider possible variants, including a portrait-orientation one, ones for other tablets, and maybe even smartphone models. It'll be interesting to see if the concept of screen-top keyboards can segue from its early Kickstarter success into mainstream popularity.