The button is slowly but surely becoming extinct. In a world of touchscreens, gesture recognition and even mind-controlled gadgets, there are fewer and fewer reasons to actually push down a key. In two or three generations’ time, it’s entirely likely that using buttons as a means of input will seem as outmoded as turning a numbered dial to make a phone call seems today.
Just like anything faced with extinction, the button has to adapt if it is to survive. Enter Tactus Technology, a company that’s devised a way to make touchscreens – whether on a phone, tablet or computer – sprout buttons. The idea was first pitched last year at the world’s biggest technology convention, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And this year, behind closed doors at the show, Tactus was ready to show us exactly what it had come up with.
The Tactus touchscreen grows its own buttons
On first impressions, the device looks like any other tablet. As a working prototype it’s slightly rough around the edges, of course, but otherwise there’s nothing about the display that gives away that it can change shape. It’s only when the virtual keyboard springs up on-screen that small, spherical buttons pop out of the glass.
As the buttons appear, a faint mechanical clicking can be heard which hints at how the Tactus screen is able to pull off this shapeshifting feat. Inside the tablet there’s a reservoir of special fluid that, when you activate the virtual keyboard, is injected into the panel. It goes into micro-channels ending at each key. It sounds simple but the ingenuity lies in finding a design and material that doesn’t interfere with the touchscreen’s thickness, clarity or sensitivity.
And they’ve done it. When the virtual keyboard descends back into the screen, the physical buttons instantly disappear too, with the liquid beneath the Tactus panel getting immediately sucked back into its reservoir.
The whole device has been devised to complement how a capacitive touchscreen works, too. For example, holding your finger over a key without pressing it down highlights the letter you’re selecting – it’s only once the tablet detects a push that a letter appears on screen.
It’s not just keyboards that Tactus can offer, either. By adding several layers, Tactus says it will be able to cater for different button layouts, such as gamepads or camera controls. Because of the way the technology works, Tactus can only offer specific configurations at the moment, but later on down the line the company hopes to have an entire screen that can adapt to any configuration of buttons on demand.
The shapeshifting touchscreen will adapt to whatever you're doing
If the idea of having buttons-on-demand on your touchscreen has you reaching for your wallet already, then the good news is that you won’t have to wait too long before you can get your hands on a smartphone or tablet with Tactus technology built-in. The company says it has partnered with a number of leading phone manufacturers to build its pop-up buttons into their next devices – though they weren’t eager to tell us exactly which leading phone manufacturers just yet. It’s also working on a case that you can retrofit to old devices to endow them with the same abilities.
Perhaps the humble button has found a way to avoid extinction after all.
Daniel Bennett is reviews editor at BBC Focus Magazine