Touchscreen displays have revolutionized our gadgets, both in and away from our automotive lives. Now, they're set to get even better to use.

From iPhones to satellite navigation systems, many of our electronic gadgets use the technology, and that's only going to increase as makers strive for ever more impressive functions.

Touchscreens have one big drawback though - lack of physical interaction. You need to look at the screen to use it. Inconvenient as a pedestrian where you might bump into people or objects in the street, and potentially dangerous in a car when you're taking your eyes and mind off the road to operate an infotainment screen.

'T-Pad' could change all this. It stands for Tactile Pattern Display, which means your touchscreen can actually feel different in different areas through different levels of resistance in the screen. Different surfaces such as the areas between virtual buttons on the screen can be simulated by subtly varying vibrations. The technology is a step on from haptics, which use vibration to let you know you've pressed a button.

The benefits in an automotive situation are easy to imagine. Carmakers are frequently subsituting tactile controls in the center stack for touchscreen displays. These are often great to look at, but require a worrying amount of concentration to operate, which can distract you from the business of driving.

Simulated buttons would allow you to touch the screen and navigate around without taking your eyes off the road, just as you would when operating old-school buttons and dials on your dashboard.

This would allow automakers to improve and refine and simplify a car's interior still further without the detrimental effects of reduced tactility.

The device still needs refining though. At the moment, the virtual friction can only be varied as the user's hand moves across the screen, so if you prod at the display you won't feel the benefits of increased interaction - the screen either vibrates, or it doesn't.

With a bit of work though it could prove to be the next big thing for automotive in-car electronics, and anything to potentially increase the safety of driving is fine by us.

The prototype is currently being shown at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.