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Hardware Keyboards May Come Back to Smartphones Soon

While we’ve grown accustomed to swiping and tapping on flat screens in smartphones, tablets, and other touchscreen devices, it doesn’t compare to the ease of typing on a hardware keyboard or using a physical controller to play games.

To address this, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group (FIG), Craig Shultz and Chris Harrison, have developed a display that can protrude screen areas in various configurations. While this concept isn’t new, this iteration is thinner, lighter, and more versatile.

FIG’s “Flat Panel Haptics” technology can be placed beneath an OLED panel to create protrusions, allowing for screen sections that can be inflated and deflated with fluid as needed. This new tactile dimension could be useful for features like pop-up media controls, keyboards, and virtual gamepads, eliminating the need to fumble around on the screen.

The Embedded Electroosmotic Pumps (EEOPs) are arrays of fluid pumps integrated into a thin actuation layer on a touchscreen device, such as a smartphone or car display.

When an onscreen element necessitates a pop-up button, fluid fills a section of the EEOP layer, and the OLED panel on top bends to adopt that shape, forming a “button” that protrudes from the flat surface by up to 1.5 mm, providing tactile feedback. When dismissed, the button returns to the flat display.

The research team claims that filling each area takes roughly one second, and the buttons feel sturdy when touched.

FIG said in its narration for a demo video:

The main advantage of this approach is that the entire mechanical system exists in a compact and thin form factor. Our device stack-ups are under 5mm in thickness while still offering 5mm of displacement. Additionally, they are self-contained, powered only by a pair of electrical cables and control electronics. They’re also lightweight (under 40 grams for this device), and they are capable of enough force to withstand user interaction.

The researchers see this as a tactile equivalent to the way pixels work on displays.

Much like LCD pixels, which modulate light from a common backlight, EEOPs draw from a common fluid reservoir and selectively modulate hydraulic pressure in and out of haptic cells.

The pop-up buttons in their current form have a limited scope of shapes and sizes, reducing their versatility. But if they can eventually apply the same principle to a layer with more/smaller pop-up buttons (essentially “higher resolution” if we’re extending the “pixels” metaphor), it could open new doors for user interaction.

Check out the video below to see the tech in action.

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