Are pop-up buttons coming to a touchscreen near you?

Are pop-up buttons coming to a touchscreen near you?

Probably not, but somebody's working on it.

We've kind of ground to a standstill regarding our cell phones. And by "kind of," I mean "seriously, is anybody going to invent anything that's not just an iPhone or a bigger iPhone?" The Samsung Galaxy Note tried to bridge the well-needed gap between phones and tablets by being huge and including completely obsolete technology in the package. Seriously, a stylus? No one is nostalgic for the Palm Pilot. Not one guy. 

So what's next, mobile innovators? Are we just going to keep swiping at monoliths for the rest of our lives? The iPhone is reaching dangerous levels of saturation within the general populous (hint: when your mom and her mom and the mom of the kid you always hated in high school all have the same phone, it's officially no longer cool). But touchscreen technology seems to be kind of the end-all when it comes to mobile computing, and now that Steve Jobs is no longer with us, the world might just be struggling to come up with the next big "it."

 But maybe Tactus Technologies is on to something. They've picked up on an important limitation of the touchscreen: it only operates in two dimensions. What about that whole third plane out there in the world? Are we going to pretend it never existed as we experience life through the lens of a three by five-inch screen?

Maybe not anymore. Maybe our touchscreens are about to get a lot more touchable. This startup is working on something called the Tactile Layer, which would replace your traditional Gorilla Glass on the surface of your phone. Instead of a rigid slab, your screen would be a movable, distortable membrane. You could have actual, tangible buttons appear and disappear on your phone instead of just icons designed to look like the real thing.


The buttons run on fluid technology; a small amount of liquid sits just underneath the screen. When you need a button to appear in a particular spot, the fluid is pumped up through microchannels to create a rectangle. Simple stuff, and it doesn't pop or leak. But if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably not very precise at the moment. How sharp of a corner can you build out of water, after all? And because device manufacturers would have to pre-program all the screen's activity, it doesn't lend itself well to third-party app development.

That is to say, you might be able to have transient tactile buttons in your built-in text messaging app, but no aspiring designer would be able to come up with a game for the same phone. Given that the mobile world is built on the contributions of independent developers, it doesn't seem likely that this tactile tech will take off until they've pumped a lot more science into it.

Still, it's good to see that somebody's trying to move beyond the monolith. iPhones are about six months away from becoming passe. Somebody's got to rush in and fill that void, whether it's Apple again or a wild card like Blackberry or somebody you've never even heard of.