Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A soft touch - Touch Screens with Pop-up Buttons

Technology Review - April 28, 2009, by Kate Greene

Future touch screens may need to supply tactile feedback.

Touchy-feely: A new type of touch-screen display also has physical buttons. An air pump can manipulate a latex layer that covers the screen. When the pump is off, the screen is flat. Credit: Chris Harrison, Scott Hudson

Touch-screen technology has become wildly popular, thanks to smart phones designed for nimble fingers. But most touch screens have a major drawback: you need to keep a close eye on the screen as you tap, to make sure that you hit the right virtual buttons. As touch screens become more popular in other contexts, such as in-car navigation and entertainment systems, this lack of sensory feedback could become a dangerous distraction.

Now researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed buttons that pop out from a touch-screen surface. The design retains the dynamic display capabilities of a normal touch screen but can also produce tactile buttons for certain functions.

Graduate student Chris Harrison and computer-science professor Scott Hudson have built a handful of proof-of-concept displays with the morphing buttons. The screens are covered in semitransparent latex, which sits on top of an acrylic plate with shaped holes and an air chamber connected to a pump. When the pump is off, the screen is flat; when it's switched on, the latex forms concave or convex features around the cutouts, depending on negative or positive pressure.

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