Back in the spring of 2012, I got a chance to see the first demo from a company called Tactus Technology. The pitch was simple: the company recognized the fact that we're all typing on glass screens these days, an experience that generally is lacking when compared to using something with actual physical feedback. To solve that, the company showed me a prototype tablet that had a screen with "keys" that could rise out from nothingness to guide you as you type. Those keys would disappear and reappear on command thanks to near-invisible channels in the screen that filled with fluid to provide a tactile response.
It was a crazy idea, and one not quite ready for prime time, but it certainly was an intriguing and unique attempt to provide the dominant touchscreen with some tactile sensations. Now, almost three years later, Tactus is ready to announce its technology will finally be used in a shipping product — but rather than a custom tablet with keys that can rise from the screen, Tactus built... an iPad mini case. More specifically, Tactus built the Phorm, an iPad mini case with a built-in screen protector that uses the company's rising keys trick to try and make it easier to type on one of the most popular tablets available.
This is not your average iPad case
While I may have been hoping for some crazy new hardware, there's plenty of logic in Tactus' decision to make its first product an iPad mini case — there are millions of these devices out there and more are sold every day, which means the "microfluidic" based technology already has a large, built-in potential audience.
That said, I was a little surprised that the company chose to go after the iPad mini first rather than the full-size iPad Air, which is far more comfortable to turn into landscape mode and use as something approximating a real keyboard. Instead, the Phorm case works with the iPad mini in portrait mode and was specifically designed to help people type better with two thumbs rather than multiple fingers.
To that end, the Phorm case doesn't feature large "keys" that will noticeably travel, like the 2012 prototype device did. Instead, Tactus said that, after much testing, it decided to go with "key guides" instead — these show up as raised surfaces at the top of each key. They're not meant for you to press them like a key, but instead to give you some physical guidance as to where exactly each letter on your keyboard is.
I tested the new Phorm case throughout my meeting with Tactus, and I came away with very similar impressions to what I had in 2012 — it's a cool idea, but it's not quite ready for prime time. The key guides were just a bit too subtle for me to really notice them once I started typing away, and it's certainly not noticeable enough for you to type without looking directly at the keyboard. However, Tactus said I was using a prototype version of the case with key guides that didn't quite raise up as high as the shipping version will; maybe that final experience will make the guides more useful.
That said, the technology Tactus has developed here remains unusual and interesting — on the Phorm case, the keys are raised by a physical slider switch on the back that forces the fluids to move from their side reservoir (hidden away in the case's bezel) down into the keyboard. This solution requires no power, and the large slider is located right where your hands rest when you're in the typing position holding the iPad mini. Of course, the hardware could break down over time, and we don't want to think about what would happen if the area holding the fluid somehow burst, but all in all it's a fairly elegant solution.
The real killer for Phorm is its $149 price point — that's just too much to justify this trick right now. It'll be on sale for $99 during the pre-order period starting today, however. Either way, it's too expensive, even though it feels like a strong and sturdy case. But despite the fact that I can't really recommend Phorm, I'm still interested to see what else Tactus does, and the company has a busy year ahead. The company is already working on products for the iPad Air and the iPhone 6 Plus, and it's also partnering with manufacturers to build its technology right into new products, rather than as an add-on. That'll be something worth keeping an eye out for.