Are “Tactile Touchscreens” In Our Future?

surface is a microsoft touchscreen display targeted at casinos, hotels, and entertainment venuesA new patent filing from Microsoft (of all places) hints at a “textured touchscreen”: a tactile surface that could change shape at will. Is this the beginning of the end of physical keyboards?

Here’s how it works. The screen, coated with a “shape-memory polymer”– think memory foam– can stiffen and stick out when it’s hit by a certain wavelength of ultraviolet light. But what’s really cool is how fine-grained the control is. This process works on the level of individual pixels– meaning a theoretical iPhone 4 outfitted with this technology would have an astounding 326 “bumps” per square inch.

Imagine touchscreens that could form keys whenever they needed… buttons or knobs that extrude outward from the screen… a game in which you can feel the tension with your fingertips… or braille support built-in to every screen.

It’s unlikely that this would make its way into phone displays for a long time. For now, support is likely to be limited to big tablet surfaces such as, well, Surface. But if it proves feasible, this could represent one of the biggest shifts in touchscreen tech since the first iPhone.

I’m always impressed by Microsoft’s patents. The company may have a long, slow road ahead of them, especially now that cloud computing threatens their very business model, but they’ve always had some of the best and brightest minds out there. Keep it up, Redmond!

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