Tactus And Synaptics Create A Reference Tablet For OEMs With An Amazing, Disappearing Keyboard

One of the most impressive things we happened upon at CES this year was the Tactus keyboard, a special fluid-filled layer that could be baked into a tablet or smartphone to provide users with a physical keyboard that could recede back into the screen when it wasn’t needed.

Since then the company has been flying under the radar, but it turns out Tactus has been hard at work on a prototype device with help from a prominent player in the touch interaction space. Tactus confirmed to TechCrunch that it has partnered with touch panel experts at Synaptics to create a reference device — a 7-inch Android-powered tablet — that it will begin shopping around to OEMs and carriers at the end of June.

As you might expect, the company was hesitant to name names, but newly-installed sales and marketing VP RK Parthasarathy noted that “multiple tier 1 OEMs” are already waiting for a chance to fiddle with the 7-inch reference design kit, and that the first Tactus devices were still slated to be shown off some time this year… just not around these parts. Instead, Parthasarathy expects the first official Tactus-enabled tablet to make an appearance at a trade show in Asia in Q4 (the tight-lipped VP wouldn’t confirm which) before popping up at CES in early 2013.

Fortunately, it seems as though those Tactus-enabled tablets may able to compete on price just as devices like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire do right now. Despite the seeming complexity of adding a fluid-filled outer layer to a tablet’s screen, it’s apparently a walk in the park compared to the alternative. According to Parthasarathy, the process of handling and cutting down glass for the traditional cover lenses that sit over tablet displays is cumbersome and pricey enough that implementing a Tactus layer is a viable financial alternative. The fact that the keyboard can be made to work with whatever OS sits below it is an intriguing proposition to boot — there’s nothing stopping Microsoft or Apple from running with these things short of a mismatch in vision.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2lm2YcYvJo&w=640&h=360]

The move works rather nicely for Synaptics too — the company’s touch layers have become ubiquitous in laptops and smartphones, but short of an appearance in Samsung’s 10-inch Galaxy Tab 2.0 Synaptics hasn’t had much success in cracking the tablet market.

“The tablet market has been evolving, and Synaptics has been criticized for being late to the game,” said Synaptics technology strategist Dr. Andrew Hsu. Granted, the tablet market is still relatively small compared to the handset business — while Synaptics’ presence in tablets has been modest, it hopes that partnering with Tactus can help them pick up steam in an already-crowded market.

It’s an incredibly neat concept and seems to work well enough in practice, but are people really clamoring for a return to more tactile way to interact with their devices? After all, big names in the mobile space like Samsung have been tinkering with ways to users to manipulate their gadgets without the need to lay a finger on them. In short, are touchier keyboards really the way forward? At least one person would probably agree, but as far as Tactus is concerned there’s nothing to stop an OEM from baking a whole host of interaction methods into a single device.

“What we’re seeing is a natural evolution,” Parthasarathy pointed out. “We don’t believe there is a single interaction mechanism that belongs on every device. Users will have a multitude of interface options, but serious content creation requires a physical interface.” We’ll soon see if the Tactus vision ultimately pans out — with any luck, that initial batch of Tactus tablets will go on sale a few months after appearing at CES.