If 2017 showed us anything, it was that it’s no longer just researchers working on the bleeding edge UX and UI of the future. Corporations are getting into it, too, in the massively competitive world of Silicon Valley. We all expect zany inventions to be born out of places like MIT, but who would have thought it would be Snapchat–a publicly traded company–that would fulfill the dream of placing digital objects in the real world?
Here are some of the best experimental interface prototypes and concepts from 2017.
Snapchat’s World Lens Objects
Say what you will about Snap’s business viability–more than any other company, Snap has sucked us into the possibility of AR. This year, it one-upped its selfie lenses with World Lenses, which allowed you to drop real (err, digital) 3D objects like rainbows into your photos and videos. More recently, Snap opened the World Lens platform for anyone to design these lenses, too. Granted, Facebook is going blow-for-blow with Snap with its own AR releases, and Google just added Star Wars AR objects to its Pixel line of phones. But if one thing is clear in 2017, it’s this: augmented reality is here, en masse. It may just be getting started. And we have Snap to thank–or curse–for it.
Voice Assistants Hacked With Inaudible Frequencies
Who knew that the voice assistants inside our iPhones, Android devices, and Windows computers were all vulnerable to the same, simple trick? Using a technique called the DolphinAttack, a team from Zhejiang University translated typical vocal commands like “open the back door” into ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to hear, but perfectly decipherable by the microphones and software powering our always-on voice assistants. Researchers were able to direct Macbooks to malicious websites and redirect car GPSs to new locations. Hopefully, this vulnerability is being plugged. But the meantime, what an ingenious UI hack–one that was, thankfully, pulled off by the good guys!
Playful Palette Color Mixing
This year Adobe Research and the University of Toronto debuted an experiment called Playful Palette that lets you mix colors in a stretchy, blended puddle. The effect is downright beautiful. Each color mix is like its own little snapshot of wall-ready abstract art. But crucially, as you work putting colors to the virtual canvas, you automatically save the colors that you’ve already used around the wheel. Hopefully, we’ll see it inside Adobe products soon.
The UX Of Amazon + Whole Foods
When Amazon bought Whole Foods this year, nobody knew what to expect–save for, perhaps, the studio Argodesign, which quickly conceptualized all sorts of hardware and software possibilities, ranging from a two-sided refrigerator that would allow Amazon to deliver produce, to a hydroponic garage garden where Whole Foods would grow you produce. While mere concepts, we’ve already seen some of Argodesign’s theories come true: Namely, both Amazon and Walmart have announced plans to deliver goods all the way inside your house. Walmart will even stock your fridge.
Color Changing Hair Dye
What if you could change your hair color–without getting it dyed and re-dyed? That’s the promise of a project by the studio, The Unseen, which created a color-changing hair dye that’s exactly as magical as it sounds: With a sharp temperature change, the dye shifts hues on its own, as if spellbound. The dye debuted at London Fashion Week, but sadly to all fans of The Craft, it’s not yet commercially available.
Self-driving cars are coming, but how will they change lives–beyond Uber saving a few bucks on human labor? The design studio Artefact proposed a concept called Aim. It’s basically a clinic on wheels. It drives to your house and provides a private room full of equipment to collect routine vitals. Little UX and UI touches–like the fact that the whole floor of the vehicle is a scale, and the interface is a mirror of your own body–present a feasible argument for a world in which we don’t go to the hospital, but the hospital comes to us.
Blade Runner’s Captivating UI
Did you even see the new Blade Runner? Zomg. Zomg. The only thing more lustrous than Ryan Gosling’s steel blue gaze were all the quirky interfaces. Don’t miss our interview with the studio behind them.
A Bonus iPad Button
The iPhone/iPad’s spartan industrial design means that there are nearly no physical buttons for app developers to utilize. So, when developing its second screen app Luna Display, the studio Astro had a clever idea: hack the iPad’s camera into a button activated by the presence and lack of light. The good news is, it worked! The bad news is Apple blocked it from going to the App Store.
Interfaces may one day be woven into our clothes. And this gorgeous, interactive sound tapestry–created as a collaboration between the London-based lab Bare Conductive and the designers Fabio Antinori and Alicja Pytlewska–offers a glimpse at what that experience might be like. Called Contours, the hanging fabric is striped with white conductive paint embedded with sensors that detect movement. As a person moves around the tapestry, a soundscape reacts based on their bodies.
Disney’s Meat Puppets
In by far the creepiest interface demo of the year, Disney Research trained a computer to track the trajectory of a ball in real time–and predict where it would land before a human could. But when stuck into VR with this system, people became something more akin to marionettes. Through this handy, predictive UI, the user goes from being unsure where a ball might land, making micro adjustments over the course of several seconds, to being puppeted with sharp, sure motions that somehow look devoid of life.
A Second Pair Of Hands
What’s better than having two arms? How about four? Scientists from the Inami Hiyama Laboratory, in Tokyo, have built wearable robo arms which feature articulated elbows, wrists, and fingers. You control them with your feet. They’re capable of very sensitive motions, including holding a sheet of paper while you draw on it, grasping a cup and lifting it to your mouth, and even wielding a hot soldering iron while your real hands finesse whatever is being soldered.
Learning While You Wait
You might not have 20 or even five minutes of consistent free time to devote to learning every day, but you do spend a surprising amount of time waiting. Carrie Cai, a PhD student at MIT’s CSAIL, created a platform called WaitSuite to teach you something new in these wasted seconds. It’s a suite of five browser extension apps that use clever interaction design to embed micro-learning moments into the interfaces you’re already using, like prompting you with flash cards to learn new words in a foreign language while you wait for a message to come through on Gchat. Participants in Cai’s study, who sent tens of thousands of Gchat messages, learned about four new words a day using her extension, and many of them found themselves seeking out the pop-ups when they didn’t appear. They had formed a habit of learning–through clever UX.