In the six years since Apple introduced the iPhone, with its stylus-free multitouch display, touch screens have become the preferred interface for mobile devices. Market demand for touch screens shows no signs of slowing. Last year’s worldwide revenues of US $16 billion are anticipated to jump to $31.9 billion in 2018, according to market research firm DisplaySearch.
However, without the tactile feedback provided by buttons, it can be easy to lose a sense of where you are on the display or of data you have entered. Or you can accidentally enter data by just resting a finger on the screen.
Fremont, Calif., start-up Tactus Technology is gunning to be the first to market a solution to this problem: Its display features fluid-filled buttons that pop up on demand, and the surface reverts to a flat screen when the buttons are no longer needed. The firm—which has raised $7.5 million so far—was founded in 2008 by longtime friends CEO Craig Ciesla, a fiber optics specialist, and CTO Micah Yairi, who had previously worked on drug delivery systems. Last year, its technology won Display Week’s I-Zone Best Prototype Display Award, CEA’s Eureka Park Challenge Grand Prize, and PC Magazine’s Technical Excellence Award. It was also chosen as one of the best products at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) by CNNMoney, Wired, and Engadget.
“To our knowledge, we’re the only one doing this,” says Nate Saal, Tactus’s vice president of business development. (A few years ago, Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Chris Harrison developed a similar technology that used air instead of fluid, but it does not appear to have been commercialized.)
Tactus’s system is intended to be incorporated during manufacturing, forming the touch display’s outer layers. A see-through elastic polymer lies on top of a transparent layer containing microchannels filled with oil. These microchannels have holes located at each button location, connecting the channels to the polymer layer. To make buttons appear, the oil is squeezed through the channels, and thus through the holes, pushing up the elastic layer. The touch screen below senses the user’s fingers pressing the buttons. When typing is complete, the liquid is sucked out and the buttons go down.
One of the major challenges, says Yairi, was making the buttons and channels almost completely transparent. The solution was to use an oil whose index of refraction matches the surrounding material.
“It’s definitely an innovative solution from a technology standpoint,” says Tony Costa, a Forrester Research analyst covering emerging consumer technologies. “It’s a tough technology problem to solve, and they’ve done a good job. I think it will find a home in niche markets, but I don’t see it as a broad mass-market product.”
Costa suggests that increased tactile response is better suited to remote controls, ATMs, industrial equipment, medical equipment (for personnel wearing gloves), seniors with declining physical sensitivity, companies like BlackBerry (whose users favor smartphones with physical keyboards), and consumers who use tablets as laptops.
“It’s a generational thing. For people who have grown up with Android phones and iPhones, it’s fairly normal for them to type on a touch screen,” says Costa. “Doing both appeals to people accustomed to keyboards, but that’s becoming a smaller part of the market over time.”
During the next year, Tactus plans another financing round to scale to production level. It has partnered with Taiwan-based TPK Holding Co.’s Touch Revolution division, a leading touch-screen manufacturer, and plans to ship to undisclosed device makers by the end of this year. Launch dates for those devices are still undisclosed. But, says Ciesla, “market interest was answered by our incredible reception at CES.”