(Image credit: Future Interfaces Group/Carnegie Mellon University) via Techradar
Would it be possible to keep a smartphone’s touchscreen while adding a physical keyboard? With the recent demonstration of an inflatable keyboard using buttons on an OLED screen, the Future Interfaces Group (FIG) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) appears to agree.
For the past 15 years, CMU has been developing a technology known as flat panel haptics. By creating an Embedded Electro-Osmotic Pump, or EEOPs, FIG was able to create a Flat Panel Haptics board that is five millimeters thick. The demo video claims that the EEOPs can control a unique pumping fluid by passing an electrical current across it. The pumps are positioned between a flexible surface on top and a reservoir of this fluid at the bottom. Pumps inside the stack that are powered by electricity can raise a stiff button at the top by up to five millimeters.
The accompanying paper by FIG describes this technology in great depth and reveals that the team’s earliest prototypes employed soft silicone as the top layer. Even though modern AMOLED screens aren’t as flexible as that silicone, they appear to be adaptable enough to allow for parts of the screen to be converted into a full-fledged QWERTY keyboard. When necessary, the buttons “may display [themselves] and descend back when [they]re not. ” FIG was also able to repurpose the EEOPs for other things like pumping an app icon in and out whenever you have pending notifications. Large buttons can be created, too, for the Snooze bar on alarms. They, too, can be animated or stay “inflated until pressed.”
Not only is an inflatable keyboard cool, but it also has potential practical uses. The keyboard can provide a tangible indicator for on-screen material in addition to assistance from AI assistants like Siri (although Siri is lagging behind), which can firstly help blind people utilize the finest phones more effectively. Additionally, the tactile feedback may result in more immersive mobile gaming because players can feel the buttons physically. Having used physical controls, I can say that digital controls aren’t even close.
Will phone companies, however, be drawn to inflated buttons? It’s difficult to say. The BlackBerry Storm had a touchscreen that also served as a physical button back in 2008. Initial reviews of this feature were mostly negative because it made text creation significantly more challenging than it needed to be. Physical buttons on touchscreens have been eschewed by phone manufacturers ever since, but FIG’s Flat Panel Haptics may change that. Instead of just having one large button, devices would include a whole keyboard.
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You can assume that there is still a lot of work to be done for FIG. The researchers acknowledge several limitations in the report, including the flimsy durability of these buttons and how much electricity would be required to run everything. Additionally, it would make phones bulkier, so maybe tablets would be a better fit. All we can do is wait and see.