California startup Tactus Technology recently caused plenty of "oohs" and "aahs" at SID Display Week 2012. The prototype touchscreen the company presented featured buttons that can rise out of the flat surface of the screen at the user's whim, disappearing completely once they are no longer needed.
Beneath the surface of the screen are a number of microscopic channels that can be prearranged by the manufacturer, and a small amount of a clear oily substance. When the physical buttons are "switched on" by the user, the clear substance is pumped through the channels and the solid buttons magically rise out of the display. When the keyboard is switched off, the buttons disappear completely, leaving the user with a full-sized touchscreen device.
The solution appears to be more effective than previous attempts at implementing such a device. Other companies have come up with their own concepts, but the one showcased here might well be the first to reach the consumer market - the company says it will be ready by mid-2013.
In this early concept, the microchannels need to be in a prearranged pattern, such as a standard QWERTY keyboard, and cannot change their configuration - they can only appear or disappear, but the shape and position of the buttons is fixed. However, the company says the display will eventually be able to morph into a variety of different patterns that could be optimized to specific software applications.
The system is also reported to have very low power consumption. Craig Ciesla, CEO of the startup, says his team expects "less than two percent battery drain for the whole day," although such figures will obviously vary based on battery capacity and the size of the display.
While smartphones and tablets are the obvious target market, the company said the technology could also find use in the control panels of production cars.
The video below illustrates the touchscreen at work.