Could physical buttons make a comeback on mobile devices?

This is a guest post by Kane Fulton, editor and founder of online magazine SKRBBLR.

Some of the more interesting and exciting innovations in mobile tech of late are borrowing from the past to shape the future.

Flexible plastic e-paper displays are a case in point, and last month a similar union of old and new was revealed in a unique tactile user interface developed by venture-backed California-based company Tactus.

Tactus’ interface literally adds a new dimension to touchscreen devices by enabling real, physical buttons to rise up from the surface on demand. When they’re no longer required, the buttons recede back into the touchscreen.

The buttons exist as part of a tactile panel which is around 1mm thick and replaces the glass layer that sits on top of a touchscreen device’s display. They take less than a second to inflate or deflate and can be rested on like normal keys while in use without consuming much power from the device itself. 

tactus.jpg

After watching the initially bizarre video here (sorry you have to click through, for some reason Tactus disabled the embed code so we can’t play the video here), you can understand why Tactus felt the need to state on its website that its haptic technology doesn’t work by “tricking the senses”. If a mobile device ever implemented a bubble-wrapped version of whack-a-mole as an input method, it would probably look something like this.

That said, as somebody who last month pledged $67 on Kickstarter to back a new iPad case called the TouchType, which can transport both the tablet and an Apple wireless keyboard at the same time, you can safely say that any innovation intent on steering us away from using a device’s on-screen keyboard is one that will receive support.

That the project surpassed its pledge goal of $2,500 by $43,249 suggests that its supporters unlike the TouchType, are not a unique case.

A mobile phone featuring a large touchscreen display and on-demand physical buttons could lure steadfast business users away from the Blackberry camp while retaining mainstream consumer appeal, ushering mobile tech into a true age of consumerisation, negating the need to bring multiple handsets into the workplace once and for all.

Industrial applications

Tactus’ technology isn’t limited to mobile tech, either. Its deformable surface, which is covered by 22 granted (or pending) patents, is scalable – meaning it can also be applied on large surfaces found on TV screens – and the button layouts, shapes, location and size can also be customised.

The possibilities of the technology are limitless when you consider how it could be applied in various industries.

It has huge potential in the automotive sector, for example, both for regular drivers and those who use navigation systems as part of their job, such as taxi drivers, the police and emergency services. While car manufacturers are increasingly integrating touchscreens into their vehicles, these screen’s lack of tactile feedback pose severe safety issues as they require drivers to divert their attention from the road.

The buttons’ layouts, which are application controlled, could result in new devices being created on the fly. A business person giving a presentation could theoretically use their mobile phone to navigate through PowerPoint slides by switching to another pre-defined button configuration in seconds.

Tactus also believes the technology would create affordable solutions in manufacturing industries, which would benefit from the greater accuracy afforded by tactile feedback. Touchscreens designed for industrial controls and test equipment would become more economically viable due to the screen space saved by combining a screen and keyboard into a smaller form factor.

E-readers would become more practical, too, and it’s not difficult to envisage a device resembling a keyboard Kindle/Kindle Touch hybrid. The physical buttons would also make such devices ideal note-taking, cost-effective alternatives to tablets for accountants, teachers, doctors, and others in professions that require a fast and accurate physical input method.

Such integrations scrape the tip of the iceberg and merely hint at what Tactus’ innovative technology is capable of, with gaming, medical devices and remote controls presenting further possibilities — some of which we may get to see as early as 2013.

We may have found a new meaning to the phrase “button it”.

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