Do your fingers find it hard to type on an iPhone? Do you tend to run into things when entering data in your car's GPS? Are modern kiosks your kryptonite? Well, that's weird. But luckily for you Chris Harrison at Carnegie Mellon University's Human Computer Interface Institute has something to ease your troubles: a touch screen with buttons you can feel. Using some pressurized air and flexible materials, this graduate student was able to create a flexible surface that can be deformed to match displays projected on its surface. Best of all, IR light and cameras allow the surface to act like a normal touch screen. See Harrion's straight forward demonstration video after the break.
With all due respect to Mr. Harrison, his project seems to have taken a "well, duh" approach to adding tactile buttons to a touch screen. How much simpler can you get than air pressure, cut out boards, and latex? Looking at the video, I'm struck by the notion that I could have done that. Of course, I didn't, and neither did anyone else. There have been many touch screens, even a few that have a tactile feel, but Harrison's is the first I've seen that combines flexible surfaces, varying graphics, and touch sensitive surfaces. Maybe genius just seems obvious in hind-sight.
In essence, this device is really a combination of three things: rear projection, diffused light detection, and surface deforming through air pressure. Individually, none of these things is new. Together they are pretty cool, but the surface deforming is really the limitation here. Harrison does an admirable job finding as many degrees of freedom as he can (check out 1:39 to see the decoupled positive/negative forms). However, there's only so much versatility you can get out of pre-determined cut out shapes. A truly universal display would need to vary those shapes dynamically to fit each possible use, perhaps using electrostatics.
Since the only working prototype is sitting at Carnegie Mellon, it's hard to get a feel if the deformable touchscreen will make it to market anytime soon. It would take a lot of engineering to get it to fit on a smart phone. It has pressure sensitivity, like a certain keyboard I know, which has strong implications for advanced human-computer interfacing. Again, that would probably take a while. Not to be negative, but why couldn't someone have invented this five years ago? As it is, I'm not sure Harrison could have a retail product produced before the paradigm of input devices shifts to something completely new, like tactile holograms.
Still, if I were a less cynical futurist tech-blogger (does such a person exist?) I would point to Harrison's device as a strong contender for a new type of interface. Air pressure and cut outs may seem simple in the prototype, but let a team of scientists over-design the thing for a few years and I'm sure we'd get a really suave touchscreen. One that would adapt to displays and users' needs beyond a few predetermined choices. It could allow everything from a braille iPhone to a GPS unit with 3D topographical display.
Heck, maybe the story here isn't even the device at all. Maybe it's Harrison. A simple working solution to a common technology problem? Yeah, that's the sort of stuff careers are made of. Kudos.