I think tablets such as the iPad are great! They are getting really close to replacing desktop computers and laptops for a lot of people. I expect that in a year or two, many home users will not upgrade to a new PC but will get a tablet instead.
The average user browses the internet, sends email, and occasionally writes something in Word. The iPad is already capable of handling these tasks and many more; it just needs to be able to print wirelessly to any printer and you’re all set.
The iPhone and iPad have proven that touch as the primary mode of interaction works wonderfully well. The problem with today’s touch screens, however, is that there really isn’t much to touch. They are completely flat and smooth. Our fingers deserve more than that!
I imagine a touch screen where the outer glass layer consists of a matrix of squares that can be configured, electronically, to go up and down. This layer allows the programmer to create a terrain of bumps and holes on top of the pixels that make up the visual display.
When the app shows an on-screen keyboard, for example, it will also send signals to this tactile feedback layer to form actual button shapes on top of the pixel buttons. Tap one of those button shapes and the software will make it sink into the screen, giving the user the impression that he is tapping an actual button. If the refresh speed is quick enough, say 1/10th of a second, then this effect will be believable to the user.
Not every pixel needs to have a “bump”. I’m thinking that one bump per group of 4 pixels will be sufficient to make this work, with each bump having three possible positions: flat, raised or lowered. The raised position would be half a millimeter or so above the surface. Likewise, the lowered position would sink that same distance into the screen.
Seen from the side, it might look something like this:
Maybe if this technology becomes sufficiently advanced, several heights could be possible instead of just raised/flat/lowered. Ideally, there would be at least one bump per pixel. With this kind of configuration, the feel of real textures such as wood can be emulated. If the refresh speed is quick enough, even moving things such as a vibrating guitar string could be reproduced. Blind people could read braille straight from the device.
Of course this is wishful thinking. I doubt the technology to do anything remotely like this exists today and I don’t have a clue how one would go ahead and build it. Nanotechnology maybe — you don’t want any wires to be visible on top of the display — but that’s something of the far-away future. Also, because the glass is now no longer flat, care would need to be taken that the underlying picture does not get distorted.
Still, it’s fun to think of these things. Anyone already working on tech like this?