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Tactus touch screen sprouts keys and buttons

Silicon Valley start-up's touch screen grows 3D buttons and knobs where and when you want them, promising the best of real and virtual controls.

Pneumatic touch-screen controls, like this one from CMU, really pop out at you. Video screenshot by Eric Smalley/CNET

We've gotten used to touch screens always being flat. Get ready for that to change.

Silicon Valley start-up Tactus Technology has designed a touch screen that grows 3D buttons and knobs where and when you want them.

Smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and kiosks equipped with the technology would sprout physical controls like QWERTY keyboards and knobs on demand. The controls would recede into the touch screen surface after they've served their purpose.

3D controls are often easier to maneuver than today's flat touch-screen controls, as you can use them without looking. Getting the best of both worlds means marrying physical controls' higher accuracy and ease of use with touch screens' elegance, simplicity, and dynamic nature. The physical cues are especially important for people who can't see well or who have trouble with fine hand movements. They also make it easier to control your cell phone when it's in your pocket.

The trick to making a morphing touch screen useful is fitting it in a smartphone. The Tactus design calls for sandwiching a fluid between touch-screen layers and pushing the fluid around with a series of tiny valves. The top layer is flexible, so pushing the fluid to one part of the screen raises the surface there.

Tactus Technology isn't the only game in town when it comes to this concept. Carnegie Mellon University researcher Chris Harrison recently developed a similar screen using air rather than fluid. Check out the video below to see the CMU morphing touch screen in action.

Imagine the morphing touch-screen apps people will come up with. Instead of sounds and vibrations signaling a new message, you could have customizable pokes and prods.

Don't look for buttons and keys to pop up from the screen of next year's iPhone, though. Morphing touch screens are still in the lab and probably years away from store shelves. Here's hoping they see the light of day--or the darkness of your pocket as the case may be.

(Via Businessweek)