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The craziest projects from a conference on experimental UI

Drones. Flesh computers. Shape-shifting controllers. It’s pure insanity.

The craziest projects from a conference on experimental UI

It’s hard to imagine a post-iPhone world, when the touch-screen phone in our pocket makes way for some other societal obsession.

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But next week in Berlin, many of the world’s leading researchers in experimental interfaces are gathering for the ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium. And after looking through all of the projects on my own, it’s clear that there are some radical ideas that anyone who is interested in interface design, virtual and augmented reality, or just plain old weird tech really needs to see.

Drones as a screen

Smartphones let us grab apps and drag them to any part of our screens. But what if you could drag and drop objects, unencumbered by the rules of physics, in real life? GridDrones is a matrix of tiny drone helicopters that are meant to serve as pixels in midair. Because it’s protected by a cage, you can handle each of the drones as it hovers in midair–moving these “pixels” to create different patterns on a crude “screen.” You can even program the fleet to specific animations.

GridDrones may not be inside consumer electronics anytime soon, but they represent a world in which media, and information, can be tangibly manipulated, and our objects can respond to our most unrealistic demands–like floating in midair.

Your fingers as an interface

Touch screens are swell until you want to do something as simple as right-click–there’s rarely a deeper, power-user-friendly layer of controls to unlock within iOS or Android apps. But Touch+Finger doesn’t just look at where you touch the screen. It can see how you touch the screen, analyzing your finger movements to provide more nuanced controls.

Using a pair of ring sensors, Touch+Finger lets you zoom by scraping your thumb against your index finger–you can also dismiss something by flicking your thumb, or shoot virtual bullets in a game by tapping your thumb, too. It basically makes use of your fingers in a way that a touch screen does not.

Tangible–and inflatable–interfaces

Virtual reality is remarkable, until you try to reach out and touch something. Then your body realizes that your eyes have been fooled, that the pixels in front of you are just shimmery illusions.

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PuPOP is a balloon that wants to change that. When you grab objects in VR, the device inflates itself into various shapes to mimic cubes and cylinders, allowing you to ostensibly touch virtual worlds . . . even if, for now, those worlds feel like a very advanced Ziploc bag.

Tattoos as screens

Is holding an inflatable bag too much for you? Okay, then take a look at Tactoo. It’s a temporary tattoo that’s just 35μm thick–which is about the width of a human hair–and it doubles as a haptic interface, simulating the feel of branches, leaves, and other textures on your skin, which would be fantastic for VR and AR simulations.

The most remarkable point, however, is that Tactoo is so thin, you can still feel real objects through it. So wearing the device doesn’t numb your senses like a glove, but enhances them. In other words, it’s feasible that you could wear Tactoo in the real world and not miss out on it in the process.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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