Smartphone Keyboards Are Awful, But New Tactile Keys Could Change That

Future screens could get better haptics

  • A new haptic system could make typing more accurate. 
  • The Carnegie Mellon invention uses pumps that push water. 
  • Researchers have also created a haptic system for communications.
Closeup of someone tapping a smartphone which they're holding above a laptop computer.

vorDa / Getty Images

Your phone could one day be a lot easier to type on. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have devised a way to allow haptic technology on mobile screens. The invention would create tiny vibrations to make typing more accurate through feedback.

"Many users would still prefer the click feedback of tactile buttons as it makes for a more straightforward and engaging experience," Craig Shultz, one of the scientists who worked on the project, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

A Pushier Keyboard

The secret to the new kind of keyboard is water. The device uses electroosmotic pumps, which can move liquids through electrical fields instead of mechanical parts. These pumps are 1.5 millimeters thick and create pop-up buttons, measuring almost five millimeters in height with enough pressure and stiffness to give them a solid feel when tapped. 

"The main advantage of this approach is that the entire mechanical system exists in a compact and thin form factor," the researcher said in a demo video. "Our device stack-ups are under 5 mm thick while offering 5 mm 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."

Shultz pointed out that the now-discontinued Blackberry phone appealed to users because of its tactile feedback-an advantage that's now lost with all screen models like the iPhone. 

"Error-wise, non-tactile feedback introduces numerous errors in text entry that slow things down and cause users to have to constantly fix their text or [re]send messages (think of all the 'this email sent from mobile, forgive errors' messages)," he added. 

A tactile keyboard provides feedback confirming to the user that a key has been pressed, resulting in more accurate typing, lack of errors, and, therefore, a lesser need for autocorrect functions, Steven Athwal, the managing director of The Big Phone Store, said in an email. 

A phone keyboard without haptics will often lead to mistyping due to the lack of feedback that a tactile keyboard would provide, Athwal said. Users think they have pressed a character, but the keyboard needs to register it. 

"Most repairs to broken screens are carried out with the use of third-party replacement screens, which are never as responsive as the genuine screen; not having tactile keyboards on these repaired devices increases the likelihood of errors while typing," Athwal added. "Users often compensate by typing much slower, leading to a lesser user experience than is typical with a genuine screen."

Error-wise, non-tactile feedback introduces numerous errors in text entry that slow things down and cause users to have to constantly fix their text or [re]send messages...

However, don't expect a haptic keyboard phone to be on store shelves soon. 

"We've shown this type of display is possible and demonstrated advances over previous similar approaches to ours, but there is still a lot of engineering work before it comes to something like the next iPhone," Shultz said. "I would expect it to make its way into other areas like tablets for the visually impaired, car dashboards, and possibly dual-screen laptops first."

Haptics Everywhere

Haptics is a common way to provide feedback for personal electronics. The technology can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user.

It's possible to get haptic feedback when typing on an iPhone so you can "feel" the keys as you type them. However, that tiny vibration is not the same as having a button you can actually press.

Japanese researchers are even using haptics as a kind of communication device. The scientists have developed what they claim to be the first "sensation sharing" technology, which allows users to send tactile sensations via a remote sensor and reproduce them in vibrations.

A man sitting at a table by food truck and using his smartphone while eating burgers with his friends.

Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

The new platform can learn the physical characteristics of each target person and then adjust the presenter's haptic information (degree of strength, etc.) so that the target can perceive the information quickly and clearly. The platform can record the presenter's sense of touch and share it with the target over time. Online shoppers, for instance, will be able to use the technology to feel different types of fabrics used in clothing. 

"We've been communicating through words, images, and music, but I don't think we've been able to see the whole picture from just these factors," Hironori Ishikawa, an NTT Docomo official overseeing the project, said in the news release about the technology. 

Was this page helpful?