Tactile touchscreen buttons coming this year

At CES last year, a company called Tactus demoed a novel twist on touchscreen buttons. The approach pipes fluid into elastic bubbles that rise up from the surface of the screen, providing a measure of tactile feedback that should make touchscreen typing feel more natural. When the buttons aren't required, the fluid is pumped out, and the bubbles sink back into the screen.

The technology sounds straight out of science fiction, but you'll be able to get your fingers on it soon. Technology Review reports reports that Tactus buttons are coming to a protective case for the iPad Mini. The case will integrate Tactus tech into its screen protector, and you'll apparently be able to buy one this year.

A second case is reportedly in development, as well, but it's unclear what sort of device it will target. The technology won't be limited to add-on accessories, either. Electronics manufacturing firm Winstron has modified its equipment to crank out touchscreen panels infused with Tactus buttons. According to Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla, the company is working with Winstron on "products and prototypes for carriers, electronics brands, and retailers."

Technology Review got its hands on a prototype iPad Mini case that puts the bubbles between the keys instead of on top of them. (Tactus is experimenting with multiple bubble patterns.) The bubbles are helpful, author Tom Simonite says, but the screen "feels noticeably less smooth to a finger swiping the surface." At least the bubbles disappear with little trace. Only "a close examination of the screen protector in the right light" reveals evidence of their existence, he says.

Tactus' technology appears to rely on predefined button patterns, so cases will presumably work with only one keyboard layout and orientation. That limitation is also likely to affect devices that integrate the technology directly. There's no indication of when Tactus buttons will appear in devices like smartphones and tablets, though.

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