Skeuomorphic design has been nearly forgotten these days, with its references to the analog world mostly replaced by clean line minimalism, flat icons, and lots of white space.
But a clever UI experiment from Apple alum Bob Burrough aims to bring it back by making the screen of your phone feel a little less, well, digital. As you move your phone, the icons on the screen react to the light in the actual room you’re in, their shadows and textures shifting very slightly in accordance with how the icons would be lit if they were in the physical world.
While the demo is basic, the effect is mesmerizing. Rather than just mimicking the physical world, it’s like the elements of the UI have become part of the real-world environment.
“It actually looks like the user interface elements are physical objects that reside just beneath the surface of the screen, and you could reach in and touch them,” Burrough says.
Called Project Erasmus, the demo uses a fish-eye lens attached to the phone’s camera to capture your environment’s lighting. Then, the software projects this environmental map onto a scene, which the computer uses to calculate lighting and reflections.
Why use a design that mimics the physical world? Practically speaking, it’s much more usable. Research has shown that while young people tend to like flat design aesthetically more than older people, young people find it just as confusing to use as older ones do. That’s because flat design often isn’t intuitive; it can be hard to know whether something is a button or not without some kind of gradient or shadow to indicate it. That’s why some companies, Google in particular, have tried to leave flat design behind using systems like Material Design, where interface designers take their cues from the materiality of the physical world.
This demo, however, isn’t entirely practical–when Burrough moves slightly into shadow, the UI goes black because there’s little light in the environment around the phone. But it’s a novel way to give digital icons life beyond their pixels.