The smartphone industry has come a long way from feature phones with physical keyboards to today’s sleek iPhones and Android phones with flat touchscreens.
But what if we could have both? What if a phone could have a flat touchscreen while we’re watching videos and a three-dimensional keyboard while we’re typing an email?
Tactus Technology, a company developing a “morphing tactile surface” (a touchscreen with buttons that grow and shrink as needed), just announced a new strategic partnership with Wistron Corporation, a major original design manufacturer (ODM) based in Taiwan.
Wistron is also joining as an investor in Tactus’s second institutional round, which now totals $13.5 million. The deal closed in December, but Tactus declined to reveal the amount at the time.
“We’re doing a new type of touchscreen … What’s coming [next] after today’s touchscreen,” Tactus cofounder and chief executive Dr. Craig Ciesla told VentureBeat in an interview.
“We’ve developed a new type of window, replacing that a one layer in the window for any device,” Ciesla said.
Tactus has demonstrated prototypes at events such as 2013’s Consumer Electronics Show, as we previously covered.
However, this strategic partnership will move the technology into production — and into devices and accessories — much faster.
“Wistron is a very well-known name in the ODM ecosystem. Because they are an ODM, they also design devices and tablets … [We’ve already] started working on their reference design tablet with their design team,” Ciesla said.
The company is slated to release a first product later this year — an iPad Mini accessory. And it plans to release a tablet after its iPad Mini accessory, likely in early 2015.
“Our panel technology goes in front of the iPad Mini as a screen protector would. There’s also a case they can add,” Ciesla said.
The screen protector then grows a QWERTY keyboard to improve typing, the company said.
Tactus recently hired a third-party company that conducted an initial usability trial on just 20 people, aged from 19 to 70. It’s hard to put much weight on such a tiny study group, but the company says the results showed that two-thirds of those tested preferred typing with the Tactus solution over a regular keyboard and that many said they would even pay extra for a phone equipped with it.
But beyond typing, there are other device limitations Tactus’s technology could help with, and according to a Lux Research report from last summer, the market for haptics (communication via touch) should grow to $13.8 billion by 2025.
In smartphones, the screen could be extended as much as possible, and the buttons currently present in traditional designs (think of the “home” or “return” buttons on Android phones) would temporarily appear only when needed
“We want larger screens but not larger phones,” Ciesla said.
Gaming controls is also an area that could benefit from Tactus. For certain games, especially on certain platforms, the player experience greatly benefits from the physical buttons. Tactus’s technology could fill in the gap when these games are made for mobile or other platforms.
Tactus is not alone in believing in physical buttons. SoloMatrix has announced its “Spike” iPhone case, which attaches a keyboard on top of an otherwise normal-looking iPhone case.
Tactus is based in Fremont, Calif. and has raised $19.5 million in funding to date.
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