Tactus' morphing smartphone and tablet display hands-on

Tactus Technology, a small start-up out of Fremont, CA, made a big splash at this year's Society for Information Display (SID) conference. The company, which came to Boston, MA toting a single product, showcased an early prototype of its morphing touchscreen display. The screen, which looks and acts like all other smartphone and tablet displays, has a very special and unique feature: it can dynamically create and remove tactile keys on demand. Tactus utilizes a specially designed window that sits directly on top of a display's touch sensor -- which we're told can be fitted to almost any touchscreen -- that has specially designed channels. A "proprietary oil" is, at the behest of the underlying operating system, forced in and out of these channels to raise the display surface and create a tactile interface for the end-user. It's a concept that, much to the delight of ardent smartphone and tablet keyboard lovers, can provide a physical input experience without sacrificing screen real estate. Have a look at our hands-on gallery then saunter past the break to see this tactile touchscreen in action and read our impressions.

The buttons created by Tactus' screen have a very distinct feeling and resistance. The small plateaus that protrude from the screen almost look wet and, when pressed, require a fair amount of pressure to push all the way down to the touchscreen. Although you can push the buttons flush, it's not necessary to register input; just tapping the screen (as with all non-resistive panels) will register your choice.

As you may be able to see from several of our photos, the screen does seem to add some thickness to the display panel. While the added size is irrelevant, it does seem to add a certain finish or sheen to the screen that we're not used to seeing; it almost looks like a mash-up of matte and glossy. The device we got to fondle was a 7-inch Android tablet, although -- as we mentioned above and can see in the company's promotional video -- the technology can be shoehorned onto a variety of display form-factors. We're not exactly sure how useful (if at all) raised keys would be on a smartphone-sized QWERTY, but it is something Tactus says is completely possible.

Tactus' screen is truly impressive, but its main draw -- at this early prototype stage -- is its newness. Refinements will definitely have to be made before OEMs are clamoring for this window, but we, along with SID's organizers (who gave the company a "best of show" nod) agree: this is a great launchpad for a technology with a fair amount of promise.