At last year’s CES, the most memorable demo I saw–by far–involved a technology invented by a company named Tactus. Using liquid trapped beneath the surface of a special layer on top of an LCD display, it could resculpt the screen’s surface on demand–to make an on-screen keyboard real and tactile, for instance. The company hoped to work with hardware manufacturers to bring the technology to tablets, and also saw applications in devices such as smartphones, cameras, and cars.
A little over a year later, Tactus is making its first announcement about its brainchild being available in a commercial product: a case for the iPad Mini called Phorm. The company is beginning to take preorders at $99, and says it intends to begin shipping the case this summer for $149.
Company representatives had shown me a prototype iPad Mini case at CES, but they refined the idea considerably since then, in collaboration with San Francisco-based design firm Ammunition. You slide your tablet into the case, then apply a clear, flexible layer on top of the screen. (You can remove the iPad if you really want to, but the idea is that you’ll keep it in the case more or less permanently.)
On the back of the case, there’s a slider switch–and it’s gigantic, so you can easily find it and push it back and forth as you hold the tablet. What happens when you flip the switch is easier to show than describe:
The little bumps just appear–no power required. Slide the switch in the other direction, and they’re gone again.
The above animation, which I prepared based on images supplied by Tactus, shows a non-final version of the key bumps. The final ones are shaped more like jelly beans, and sit above the keys. They provide feedback intended to help guide your fingers as you tap away, and work both with Apple’s standard keyboard and third-party alternatives such as Swype and SwiftKey.
What’s it like using Phorm to type? Judging from a bit of hands-on time I got, it’s…interesting. The effect is quite subtle: You get more feedback than you do when pounding away at flat glass, but it doesn’t feel anything like using a physical, full-travel keyboard.
In the early days of touch-screen keyboards, Phorm might have attracted a huge amount of attention. Today, more people have grown accustomed to typing on virtual keyboards, and I suspect that the case will appeal to a niche audience. (The Touchfire keyboard implements a vaguely similar concept in a cheaper, lower-tech fashion.) Still, if you have a chance to see Phorm in person, do so: It really does make for a remarkable demo.
Here’s Tactus’s own video about Phorm, which also shows the earlier bumps rather than the ones which shipping devices will have:
The company says that its next product will be a Phorm case for the iPhone 6 Plus, and that it’s considering making ones for the iPhone 6 and iPad Air. And it’s still working on getting its technology built directly into screens on devices such as tablets.