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The Rise (or Fall?) of the Tactus Keyboard

How good an idea is a “now you feel it, now you don’t” keyboard?
February 15, 2013

I’ve blogged about Tactus before (see “A Smart Phone with the Mumps”). Basically, the idea behind Tactus’s technology is this: what if your smartphone or tablet could essentially “grow” a physical keyboard, only when you need it? You’re watching a Netflix movie on your tablet, with its flat touchscreen. But then the movie is over, and it’s time to search for a new one. Tactus, using it’s “microfluidics” technology, would be smart enough to sprout physical buttons from your screen, just for the duration of input.

As the device nears the market–2013 is meant to be the year Tactus enters production, reportedly–CNET goes hands on.

It’s a brilliant idea. But I simply don’t think it will catch on in the mass market. I mentioned a few reasons for this in my earlier post: for one thing, my principal complaint about my iPhone keyboard has to do with size, rather than a lack of tactile feedback.

But I think the reasons that Tactus’s tech is not likely to have broad appeal are deeper. For one thing, there’s something about the notion of a morphing touchscreen that’s downright uncanny. It’s vaguely evocative of something out of a David Cronenberg movie, where technology pulses with veins and muscles like something biological. I previously referred to Tactus’s keyboards as resembling the mumps. The mere idea of a screen bulging and swelling seems contrary to what we expect from technology. Granted that anything novel seems strange at first, but if others have the same visceral “this is weird” reaction that I do, Tactus will have to offer a very strong case from utility.

And yet I’m not seeing from Tactus one of the most useful features of my physical keyboard: the little notches on the “F” and “J” keys that help orient my index fingers. Without them, I’d regularly spell the word “orange” as “ptsmhr” (or, more to the point, I’d be compelled, annoyingly, to look at my keyboard a lot more than I currently do–much as I have to always be looking at my iPhone and iPad keyboards).

Tactus tries to steer between the Scylla of the iPhone and the Charybdis of the old BlackBerry. But it’s not clear that the middle path is more appealing than either of those poles. Tactus’s tech will undoubtedly be a godsend for the visually impaired (see “Meet Georgie, a Smartphone for the Blind”),  but I sense its goals are much loftier–the mass market. Yet I suspect the mass market has largely made its peace with virtual keyboards, and that the majority of those who plan to cling to physical ones may be served better by either the Surface keyboard/case options, or perhaps by a forthcoming BlackBerry device.

I’m certainly open to having Tactus prove me wrong. I haven’t been fortunate enough to go fingers-on with the tech myself, judging only on the likes of the video below, so my hunches should be taken with a grain of salt. Time, and consumer’s choices, will tell.

Tactus Technology - CES 2013 from Tactus Technology Inc. on Vimeo.

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