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Tactile Touchscreens: Tech’s Next Big Thing?

Innovative design elements can completely transform the way we interact with technology. The introduction of the mouse revolutionized desktop computing. The wheel on the iPod made digital music players sleek and user-friendly. But figuring out the “next big thing” in electronics is a challenge that perpetually frustrates design gurus and tech companies alike. For every one bold leap forward there are a hundred misfires—like CueCat or the overhyped, underutilized QR-code scanners—that never catch on with consumers or designers.

It’s unclear if tactile touchscreens will be breakthrough or bust, but many tech giants are betting on the former. Fremont, California-based start-up Tactus Technology (profiled in the video clip below) is developing revolutionary microfluidic screens that can temporarily “inflate” on-screen keys and buttons. Think the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but considerably less violence-prone. Several models of smartphones and tablets built by LG, Nokia and Samsung already feature “enhanced touch sensations” that produce a feeling similar to clickable buttons.


Many tech users would welcome any sort of technology that makes typing messages out on a flat screen less cumbersome.

“Our staff is a mobile one and a lot of work gets done on tablets and smartphones,” said Andrew Schrage, the co-owner of Money Crashers, a blog devoted to personal finance. “Having actual buttons rather than a traditional flat touchscreen might cut down on typing errors and provide for a more user-friendly experience in general.”

Some observers believe tactile technology could become commonplace on mobile and touchscreen devices as early as 2017, with further innovations to follow in other areas. Google Maps and similar sites may soon offer “feelable topography” and other forms of augmented reality that can be manipulated by users and designers alike. This would revolutionize not only cartography, but all forms of digital design. An architect meeting with a client, for example, could manipulate a 3D model in real-time while planning a new kitchen or office, à la the futuristic computer interfaces depicted in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report.

In August, Disney Research announced REVEL, a new form of technology that uses “reverse electrovibration” to create the illusion of changing textures. This innovation could be used in everything from interactive museum displays to e-reader devices like Kindle, where it could simulate the sensation of flipping through the pages of a book.

“Touchscreens are here to stay and [tactile] touchscreens are certainly poised to be the next big trend,” claims George Burciaga, the CEO of Elevate Digital, an interactive digital software and advertising company in Chicago. “We’ve seen tremendous potential in businesses that are collaborative in nature such as design and the medical field. The touchscreen interface is very user-friendly and helps to facilitate collaboration in an efficient and orderly fashion.”

But not everyone is convinced that tactile tech will prove practical.

“In the technology industry, a lot of products are created because the elements are
available, not necessarily because there is a need,” says Paul Krumrich, the president of Spyeglass, a Minneapolis-based integrated design company that produces digital displays and signs. “I think for [tactile] touchscreens to be successful they need to make the process of getting to an end result easier, increase efficiency or enhance an experience. [Designers] need to avoid over-saturating a person with technology if they’re just looking to find something
quickly. People will become frustrated if they need to wait for a screen on their phone
or a kiosk if to feel like a special material.”

Only time will tell whether tactile touchscreens can actually meet user expectations and gain developer support. There were rumors over the summer that the new iPhone 5 might include tactile technology, but when Apple finally unveiled the phone there were no such draw-dropping innovations, only incremental improvements on existing features. But if Apple isn’t ready to make the leap yet, that leaves an opening for daring competitors. It will likely take a high profile roll out for tactile touchscreens to establish an audience and increase demand on other platforms. But that day is coming soon, while the days of sliding your greasy fingers across a greasy screen as you struggle to spell out  “cajun quesadilla recipe” could soon be over.

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