The iPad is great at switching between apps. Its home button exists just for that purpose. But what about when you’re inside an app, and you just want to pull up a toolbar that you might find in Photoshop? There’s generally no way to do so, beyond sacrificing visual real estate to place digital buttons and palettes right on the screen. But when building their new app, developers at Astro had another idea.
The app, called Luna Display, lets you turn your iPad into a second touchscreen display that connects to your primary screen over Wi-Fi through a small dongle. The team at Astro needed a way for users to access the app’s display settings, but it didn’t want to “squeeze” in extra UI, and the iPad, of course, didn’t have any extra buttons to hide the interface behind.
So they did something ingenious: They hacked a new iPad button out of the device’s front facing camera. Tap the lens, and it pulls up the menu. Tap it again, and the menu disappears. Featured on Sidebar, Astro calls its invention the Camera Button.
At first, the team tried the easier path: Coding a tiny, pixel button on the screen. You could just drag it to move it anywhere you liked on your screen. But even though it was small and flexible, it still got in the way. Then, as the team details on Medium, inspiration struck:
“Our Astro HQ cofounder Giovanni Donelli said that the idea to turn the camera into a button came like lightning, ‘I had been staring at a white bezel iPad for so long, and I kept wishing there was another home button we could use. My eyes kept falling on the camera, and I really wanted to touch it!’ Giovanni built an initial prototype of the Camera Button within an hour.”
Of course, while the idea was simple enough–the camera can sense light, and so when it senses darkness in the shadow of your finger, it activates the “button”–actually turning the hack into reliable UI required four months of work, testing, and optimizing across different iPads, each of which feature different cameras. It also required Astro to code special camera algorithms that blur the camera input for user privacy and reduce the button’s battery draw to a bare minimum.
Even still, the Camera Button is an incredibly clever idea. It repurposes Apple’s industrial design within the bounds of Apple’s own, strict app protocols, and in doing so, creates a whole new iPad “button” that could feasibly catch on in other creative apps.