Your iPhone is a facade. Its apps may sparkle with color–some even seem to pop from your screen in 3-D–but they’re illusions with real tactile qualities. More and more, interface designers are attempting to break this fourth wall and make information something that you can really feel and move with your own two hands.
Take Thumbles by James Patten from Patten Studio. It’s a desktop interface that combines touch screens with robots. Whenever a new button would normally pop on the screen, a robot drives up instead, precisely parking for the user to grab it, turn it, or rearrange it.
The idea is surprisingly versatile. This demo shows the robots serving all sorts of functions–appearing as grabbable hooks at the ends of molecules, twistable knobs in a sound and video editor, trackable police cars on traffic maps, and swappable space ships in a video game. If you move or twist one robot, another robot can mirror the movement perfectly. And thanks to their omnidirectional wheels, the robots always move with singular intent, driving in any direction without turning first.
Is this interface practical? Maybe not for your phone or laptop, no, but it makes sense for other instances where space isn’t a primary concern. For example, in the above video, we see a map where a dispatcher could pick up and move a police car to a new location to dispatch it. Think about this process for a moment: Whereas a dispatcher now might have to hear news of a disturbance, check an available list of vehicles, see who is close to the scene, and then call that police officer, this tactile interface streamlines such tasks into quick, Risk-like repositioning of the troops.
Could we complete the same task on a tiny touch screen? Probably. Would it feel as good to a human who has evolved to hold tools in his hands? Probably not.