Tactus’s Shape-Shifting Touchscreens Make for a Dazzling CES Demo

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Jared Newman for TIME

Last week’s CES gadgetfest in Las Vegas was full of product demonstrations that were neat, futuristic or some combination thereof. But I only saw one that looked like science fiction. That would be the peek I got at some prototypes from a company called Tactus, which has developed a technology that can reshape the surface of touchscreens on demand.

Launch an app that requires text input on your Tactus-equipped tablet, for instance, and the display might instantly sprout key-sized bumps that give the onscreen keyboard a tactile feel — like the Touchfire keyboard overlay for the iPad, except that it appears out of nowhere. Or a smartphone’s home and back buttons might pop up, so your thumb can find them when it needs them and ignore them when it doesn’t.

Tactus’s technology works by applying a plastic layer to the screen with channels that expand when pressure is applied to liquid below its surface — essentially, the buttons are tiny water balloons. Making that happen is even trickier than it sounds; after all, the whole idea would be a non-starter if it impaired the visibility of the display. But Tactus created a liquid with the same optical qualities as the screen surface, so it blends together visually. In the demos, at least, it all works. And the company says that it’s durable enough that you don’t need to stress out over the possibility of screen damage.

Keyboards are the most obvious application, and Tactus was showing several variants on the concept at CES. Besides the aforementioned key-sized bumps, it’s got one that places ridges between the onscreen keys, helping to guide your fingertips. It also has a prototype iPad Mini case with the plastic layer and liquid built in; the guides pop up when you slide a switch on the case.

The company says that it’s also working on on-demand keyboards closer to a conventional PC keyboard in look and feel — larger and taller, with flat tops and real travel. These versions, which I didn’t see in person, could be built into larger tablets or newfangled clamshell-cased machines with a second screen where the keyboard usually is.

The technology might also be used to give a smartphone a shutter button that’s only there when you’re in camera mode, or to give a point-and-shoot camera buttons that appear when you need them. In cars, it would probably be a lot easier to use touchscreen infotainment controls without being unduly distracted if you could feel them.

Tactus plans to license its creation and the required materials to device makers. The company also showed its stuff at CES 2013, though I didn’t run across it then; with any luck, it’ll arrive in shipping products well before the show rolls around again a year from now.

Could the technology be a big deal? Maybe. I don’t see it having anywhere near as big an impact on QWERTY input as it might have if it had been available a few years ago: Over the past few years, most people have managed to acclimate themselves to dealing with flat keyboards. But there are certainly some holdouts who crave tactile keys. And all the other potential applications still make it awfully intriguing.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete CES coverage