This week, a startup named Tactus Technology got a lot of attention for its Phorm iPad Mini case, which includes a transparent screen cover that creates bubbles over each letter in the iOS keyboard. It's basically a tactile keyboard that appears on a touchscreen only when the user needs it.
Tactus has been working on its on-demand keyboard technology for more than five years, according to Wired. The screen cover is based on microfluidic technology, which has its roots in ink jet printers, and it has small grooves carved into the spot where each letter appears on the iPad screen. When the user slides a switch on the back of the case – which appears to be almost a third of the size of the rear of the case, so it won't require you to flip your iPad around and hunt for a button – the case applies a small amount of pressure that forces a tiny amount fluid to rush across the screen. That fluid gets caught fills up each of the grooves, creating bubbles that act as tactile buttons on the touchscreen keyboard. Here's a video showing the technology in use.
It's not much of a surprise that the Phorm case would get so much attention. For all the progress made in the mobile world since the iPhone took it over in 2007, keyboard technology is the one area where the industry has taken a step backward. Touchscreens have become the predominant form factor for smartphones, even though any who's used one would admit that a BlackBerry-type keyboard is much easier.
Tactus Technologies is hardly the only company trying to fix this problem. Here are a few other examples.
Typo: BlackBerry keyboard at the bottom of an iPhone
It's an idea that's so simple it sounds perfect – build a case that brings iPhone users the BlackBerry's hard-button keyboard they've missed for so long.
Typo, the startup behind the idea and which is backed by reality TV mogul Ryan Seacrest, actually stuck too closely to the BlackBerry's keyboard when it first launched. BlackBerry came after Typo with a patent lawsuit shortly after the company launched its iPhone case in December 2013. By March, a federal judge ordered Typo to cease sales.
By August, however, Typo was back with a new design that made just enough subtle changes to keep the Canadian smartphone maker at bay. It didn't do much to appease the reviewers, though. Some have complained that the keys are too small to really make it a much better option than a touchscreen keyboard, and others found it made typing more awkward, forcing them to hold their device from the bottom corners while trying to type.
In buying the Typo keyboard, you're going to get a convenient hard-key keyboard for an iPhone. However, it also comes with at least one important trade-off – use of the Home button. Typo's new iPhone 6 case addressed this by adding a Home button on its keyboard, but it's tiny and was squeezed into the corner of the keyboard, between the ALT and Shift buttons. As this Gizmodo review explained, this could cause users to hit the Home button accidentally quite often, unintentionally launching them out of whatever application they were using to type. It also renders the iPhone's fingerprint sensor authentication on the Home button useless.
The Typo also doesn't come cheap, at $100. But if these concerns don't outweigh your frustration with touchscreens and autocorrect, that might not be too much to spend.
Boxwave Keyboard Buddy turns an iPhone into a Sidekick
The Keyboard Buddy addresses the usability issues of the Typo by turning its keyboard horizontally, designing it to slide out from behind the case and connect to the device via Bluetooth.
Boxwave has a Keyboard Buddy for at least iPhone versions 4 through 6, with the newest versions providing back-lit keys that improve typing in the dark. It's also a bit cheaper than the Typo keyboard; the iPhone 6 version with back-lit keys was available for about $60 on Amazon at the time this was written.
It should be noted that reviewers have criticized the Keyboard Buddy's functionality, button size, and the fact that many iOS apps aren't optimized for horizontal typing.
iWerkz foldable Bluetooth keyboard turns an iPhone into a laptop
For those who don't mind setting their phone down on a table or desk, the iWerkz keyboard provides a very portable laptop-sized keyboard for full productivity. This TUAW review says the iWerkz keyboard functioned very well in the Pages and Numbers apps on an iPhone 6. And it's available for only $30 on Amazon Prime.
The iWerkz keyboard doesn't solve anything for those looking for a hard-key keyboard to use while on-the-go, but its form factor and functionality essentially turn an iPhone into a laptop that fits in your pocket.
Bluetooth-enabled infrared keyboards
Admittedly, this doesn't meet the physical keyboard category promised in the headline, but it's still worth mentioning.
Similar to the foldable Bluetooth mechanical keyboard, these devices often consist of a small device that connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and uses lasers to project a virtual keyboard onto a surface. The device monitors how the infrared light reflects off the users' fingers when they touch for specific keys, relaying that information back to the phone or PC.
A Gizmag review of the Cellulon Epic virtual keyboard, which is available at the company's site for $149.99, says using the keyboard requires a lot of patience and is "a far cry from using a physical keyboard." You'd be hard-pressed to find one of these keyboards for less than $100. So unless you're looking for a novelty consumer item that you can show off to friends, you're probably better off with the less expensive, more useful foldable keyboard.