Imagine having a physical keyboard magically appear whenever you felt like using one with your smartphone or tablet — without having to connect to a Bluetooth keyboard, carry a bulky case or use a BlackBerry.
That’s the basic idea behind today’s launch of Phorm, a new iPad mini case made by Tactus Technology of Fremont, Calif. At first glance, Phorm looks like a regular protective case. But beneath the surface lies a special technology called microfluidics that makes keyboard buttons bubble up out of the touchscreen when you need to type and then disappear when you’re done.
Tactus has been working on the technology for the past five years (some of you may recall our earlier coverage from CES 2014), but this is the company’s first consumer product. Preorders begin today with a special introductory price of $99 (regular price will be $149), and the cases will start shipping this summer.
Here’s how Phorm works:
The case comes in three pieces. There’s a bottom cover that snaps onto the back of the iPad mini, a clear middle panel that goes on the tablet’s display like a screen protector and, finally, a front bezel. The middle piece is where the magic happens.
Though only about a millimeter thick, the panel has built-in channels that are filled with a non-toxic, non-flammable liquid. By sliding a button built into the back of the cover, pressure is applied those channels, causing the liquid to push up against the semi-elastic surface of the panel to create crescent-shaped buttons over the iPad’s virtual keyboard. When you’re done typing, you just move the slider back to its original position and the keys disappear.
I got a brief chance to play with Phorm during a meeting last week with Tactus CEO and co-founder Craig Ciesla and RK Parthasarathy, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. I came away pretty excited — though I think a lot of that has to do with the novelty of seeing a keyboard magically appear out of the screen.
The case isn’t too bulky, and the slider button on the back is located in a spot where your hands naturally rest when holding the iPad mini in portrait mode, for easy access. The keyboard buttons were a little slow to appear and disappear (though we’re only talking about a matter of several seconds), but Ciesla said the final product will be much faster.
The crescent-shaped keys — or finger guides as Tactus calls them — had a nice tactile feel to them, and worked well with the iOS 8 keyboard. But given such a short time with the device, I wasn’t able to gauge how much this would actually improve the typing experience. The keyboard also currently only works in portrait mode, though Ciesla insists this is a usability issue, not a technology glitch. Landscape support will be available on products where it makes sense.
Beyond the keyboard, Tactus says it is looking at areas like mobile gaming and cars to see how its technology can improve the touchscreen experience. One could imagine the technology helping those with visual impairments. Parthasarathy told me he gets a braille inquiry every couple of weeks, and the company definitely plans to address that market. But that’s still a way down the road for them.
In the near term, Tactus, which teamed up with the Ammunition Group (the design firm behind such products as the Beats by Dre headphones and Polaroid Cube) to create Phorm, plans to release an iPhone 6 Plus case around August, followed by one for the iPad Air and the iPhone 6. Android accessories are also on the company roadmap, and next year, Tactus plans to introduce products with the technology built in. The company said it is working with major device manufacturers on products, but declined to name any specific companies.
We’ll be sure to post a full review of Phorm once we get our hands on one of the units. In the meantime, you can check it out in action in the video below.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.