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This iPad Case Makes Real Buttons Rise Out of Your Keyboard

Hitting a switch on the back of the case makes finger-guiding nubs materialize.

Hitting a switch on the back of the case makes finger-guiding nubs materialize. Source

There’s no need to be embarrassed. We’ve all thought it before. You love your smartphone. You adore its spacious screen and its helpful apps. Still, you miss your old Blackberry keyboard.

It’s the one place where smartphones were a big step backward: We went from sending no-look texts under the table to appending “sent from my phone, please excuse typos” disclaimers to emails. Even with clever autocorrect algorithms and fancy swipe-to-spell software, typing on a screen doesn’t compare to typing on a real keyboard. So are we stuck here forever? Maybe not. What if there was a touchscreen that could give you real, physical buttons—but only when you need them?

That’s what Tactus Technology is trying to build. The California startup’s spent nearly five years developing a technique that makes see-through buttons materialize on top of touchscreens, as if by magic. Now, it’s readying its first consumer product, an iPad Mini case called Phorm. It’s not exactly a touch screen typing revelation, but it is an intriguing look at how we might supercharge our flat glass gizmos in the future.

Aiming for a Better Typing Experience

Tactus’ shapeshifting buttons rely on a technology called microfluidics, long used in ink jet printers. In this case, it involves a transparent panel, carved with imperceptibly small grooves, that sits on top of a device’s display—“a screen protector on steroids,” as Tactus co-founder Craig Ciesla puts it. When triggered, a change in pressure sends tiny amounts of fluid through the grooves, causing a pre-determined pattern of small bubbles to rise up from the surface of the screen.



Phorm is the the company’s first attempt at bringing the technology to market. The case itself was designed by Ammunition, the firm behind Beats by Dre and the new Lyft moustache, and it does an admirable job of packing all the necessary components into a relatively sleek package. The special grooved layer sits invisibly on top of the iPad Mini’s screen. A big, chunky switch on the back of the case lets you summon the buttons and send them away as you please. It will cost $149 when it comes out this summer, though you can preorder it for $99. It doesn’t require any batteries.

I got to play with the case for a bit, and making the buttons appear and disappear is indeed very cool. Typing with them was less magical. For one, they’re not really buttons. You don’t depress them. Instead, they’re small nubs that sit on the top-most edge of each letter, meant to help guide your fingertips like a hanging tennis ball might help you pull your car into the garage. I only tapped out a handful of test sentences, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the nubs made typing all that much easier at all.

A nice hefty switch on the back triggers the buttons.

A nice hefty switch on the back triggers the buttons. Tactus

As Tactus VP RK Parthasarathy explains, however, ease isn’t necessarily the point. What Tactus really wants is to improve the mobile typing experience. Consider typing on your laptop. The physical keys let you develop muscle memory, and before long, you’re able to think less about the process of typing and more about what you’re actually saying. “After eight years of using this, I still don’t have that,” Parthasarathy says, tapping his phone. Tactus claims the little bubbles make mobile input more immersive and less frustrating, citing a study showing that 70% test subjects preferred typing with Phorm to a regular iPad Mini. Still, that means three out of ten people didn’t like it. Return of the Blackberry Keyboard this is not.

A Glimpse of Tomorrow’s Screens?

I was more intrigued by the second thing the Tactus folks showed me: A prototype Android tablet with microfluidics built right in. This was impressive. It wasn’t noticeably bulkier or otherwise different from any other tablet. But when you opened the notes app and the software keyboard popped up on screen, the little finger-guiding nubs materialized instantly too. Sure, it was just a bunch of fluid-filled Tic Tacs popping up on a screen, but it felt like a glimpse into one possible future. For a few moments, I saw how today’s immutable glass and metal hardware could give way to more flexible, more accommodating devices—ones that physically adapt to the task at hand.

This is the company’s real vision. Today, Tactus makes a novel case for typing on one specific version of the iPad in one specific orientation. (Next up is a case for the iPhone 6 Plus.) Eventually, though, it hopes to see the technology built into devices, integrated deeply on the system level. Tactus says its in talks with a number of manufacturers interested in this possibility. The company points out that its technology isn’t incompatible with alternative keyboards like Swype and says many different types of bubbles, buttons, and bumps can be coaxed with the technique, depending on what suits the device. It’s also possible for a single morphing panel to have several different topographies built-in. Someday, perhaps, mobile game makers could conjure custom physical controls for their titles.

That’s all still a ways off, and it’s not clear if microfluidics will ever be ready for mainstream deployment. But it does seem like there will be an urge to make our flat glass rectangles something more than just flat glass rectangles, and it’s cool to see that starting to materialize, even if for now it’s just a bunch of little fluid-filled nubs.

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