I never describe anything as magical, but this gadget might be the closest to it I’ve seen so far.
Tactus Technology, a company that announced $13.5 million in new funding last spring with strategic participation from original design manufacturer Wistron Corporation, is now taking preorders for its first product, the Phorm: an iPad Mini case-and-screen cover combo. The magical part of this is that the screen cover “grows” an actual physical keyboard when you slide the button on the back of the case.
Designed by Ammunition Group, the case is fairly slim and plastic, with a clear screen protector and a slider on the back that you can move with the tip of your fingers while holding the iPad with two hands, as you would while typing.
This portion of the case’s design is particularly important, as it keeps you from having to move you grip on the tablet. Usability in general is a core goal for Tactus. The company believes that physical keyboards increase productivity and usability and that people prefer and type better with them.
Through third-party usability studies the company commissioned, it found a “75 percent preference for typing with Tactus, in this case Phorm, versus a regular touchscreen,” Tactus cofounder and chief executive Dr. Craig Ciesla told me in an interview.
Phorm is designed to work with iOS’s standard keyboard as well as popular third-party options like Fleksy and Swiftkey, whose layouts are similar to the default keyboard.
To create the raised buttons, Phorm’s screen protector uses microfluidics — tiny channels of fluid inside the screen — that expand and retract. While Tactus is first putting this technology in a tablet accessory, it’s been working with Wistron on integrating into actual tablets. It already has a working demo tablet it uses as a proof-of-concept, and we’ll likely see the release of one in about a year, vice president of sales and marketing RK Parthasarathy told me.
But for now, it’s starting with the iPad Mini, which the company says has been increasing in popularity, and it’s opening a waitlist while it prepares a similar accessory for the iPhone 6+, its next target. While accessories are all it can do for iOS devices (Apple is notoriously conservative when considering third-party technologies), Tactus has had conversations with “top tier” Android original equipment manufacturers, though Parthasarathy declined to share more details.
Starting today, you can pre-order the Phorm for iPad Mini for $100 (it will retail for $150), available in a light or dark gray. Tactus plans to start shipping the cases in the summer of 2015.
Dr. Craig Ciesla and Dr. Micah Yairi cofounded Tactus Technology in 2008, and it’s based in Fremont, Calif. The company has raised approximately $30 million to date.