Microsoft's DisplayCover prototype demonstrates a new way of interacting with tablets

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The DisplayCover adds an e-ink display strip below the tablet screen, which can be used as a cut-down Start menu(Credit: Microsoft)

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The boundary between laptops and tablets with keyboard covers continues to blur, as the former get thinner and the latter get more capable. Researchers at Microsoft's Applied Sciences Group have come up with an innovative new keyboard called the DisplayCover that clips on to a Surface tablet and includes its own e-ink display panel.

The DisplayCover's 1,280 x 305 pixel touch-sensitive e-ink screen extends the Surface's display and gives users new ways of interacting with the device (a lot like the curved edges of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge do). The screen displays Microsoft's familiar live tiles, allowing users to launch apps and shortcuts from the keyboard without having to touch the main screen.

It can also display toolbar links when Photoshop is open, for example, provide access to an instant messenger app while the main display is showing a video call, or offer quick links to photo thumbnails in a slideshow.

Though the device is just an experimental prototype at the moment, and you might never be able to actually buy it, Microsoft engineers are hoping that attachments like the DisplayCover will improve the tablet computing experience on the Surface and other kit.

"Tablet computers aim to bridge the gap between portability and productivity, reducing the need for users to carry multiple devices," explains Antonio Gomes, a research intern at Microsoft Applied Sciences Group. "However, despite increases in resolution, their displays are limited in size. This commonly results in sequential rather than parallel options for screen navigation, a significant drawback when multitasking."

The additional display can be used for stylus input or for touch gestures as well, which are easier to do on a flat surface. For example, it should allow a user to zoom into a map or select a photo without having to obscure the tablet display. And because the screen uses monochrome e-ink technology, impact on battery life should be minimal (another important consideration for on-the-go computing).

The DisplayCover is actually a reworking of an earlier Microsoft product from 2009, the Microsoft Adaptive Keyboard. The team at the Applied Sciences Group says it was inspired to revive the idea because of our increasing reliance on lightweight, portable touchscreen devices that aren't quite as simple to operate without a keyboard.

We don't know if or when something like this might go on sale, but it shows that tablet/laptop hybrids like the Surface Pro 3 are here to stay – and there's plenty of room for innovation yet. Check out the DisplayCover in action in the video below.

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