Touchscreens are the physical interface of choice right now. This is fine, because touchscreens are versatile and portable, and we like them. Sometimes, however, we feel that they lack that satisfying tactile feedback we get from physical controls like buttons and knobs and joysticks.
Now an experimental interface called Thumbles wants to bring more tactile capability to the touchscreen. It features tiny little omnidirectional robots that live on top of a projected screen. By grabbing them and dragging them around as they try to drive around, you can experience a completely new type of physical interactivity.
What makes Thumbles unique is that the robots can move by themselves. They can provide force feedback, or dynamically form different kinds of physical controls, or act as virtual representations of things like molecules or mechanical structures.
The bots look like they're mostly 3D printed, and we imagine that it wouldn't be too difficult to set up something like this with little more than the robots, a webcam, a projector, and what is probably some reasonably clever software.
Thumbles is a prototype from Patten Studio, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and it sounds like they'd be happy to make a system for you, if you ask nicely (and give them some money).
We're more than a little bit interested in what might happen if you were to extend this idea, except using a swarm of many many more robots that are much much smaller. Sort of a mobile smart pebble approach, which might lead to interactive interfaces that are "sculptable" out of microbots. Realistic? Maybe not. But we want one anyway.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.