Forget touchscreens: This case controls a smartphone with buttons and dials

In a world filled with touchscreens, it might feel pleasantly retro to push a physical button or twist a dial to control your smartphone.That's the th...

Posted: Jul 26, 2019 8:48 AM

In a world filled with touchscreens, it might feel pleasantly retro to push a physical button or twist a dial to control your smartphone.

That's the thinking behind a new phone-case prototype with swappable mechanical buttons and dials. The project was created by researchers at Snap — the parent company of photo-sharing app Snapchat — and Columbia University.

The back of the plastic case has special slots that little widgets slide into; they can be used to do things like zoom in and out with a camera app or shoot a photo, as the researchers show in a video.

"We are, as a species, very touchy and feely, and I think we want to be able to not just know that we touch something, but we also like the confirmation of something having happened," Shree Nayar, director of Snap Research's imaging-focused research lab in New York, explained to CNN Business.

Nayar said the project was born out of a desire to give people tactile feedback when touching a phone, while also stopping them from covering the display with their fingers as we tend to do when using a touchscreen. And since so many phones — as well as many other mobile gadgets — have accelerometers these days, the work could be helpful for thinking about how we interact with electronics like tablets and gaming devices, too.

The case and mechanical widgets the researchers built contain no electronics, so neither Bluetooth nor cables help them communicate with the phone. Instead, they take advantage of what happens when you push a button or wind a rotary dial: your finger's force causes the smartphone to move slightly, and this motion can be picked up by the handset's built-in accelerometer and interpreted as an action by software on the phone.

Since this movement varies slightly depending on the widget you're touching and where it is on the back of the phone, the researchers wrote an algorithm that can determine which widget is doing what. One demo app they built, for instance, shows a user controlling a video game by pressing two different push-buttons on one side of the phone.

The researchers aren't the only ones interested in more old-fashioned ways to interact with electronics. Early next year, Portland software company Panic is planning to release a handheld gaming device, Playdate, that comes with a crank on its side. And consumers apparently still relish a range of vintage electronics, from iPods to instant cameras.

The researchers designed and 3-D printed a prototype of the case with eight slots for the rectangular widgets, and 3-D printed parts for a number of widgets to fit into them that look like buttons and rotary dials. Then they put it on an Android smartphone, along with their demo software that lets the widgets control a camera, game, and virtual saxophone.

A paper about the work, much of which was conducted by Columbia graduate student Chang Xiao while he was as an intern at Snap Research, will be presented next week at the annual computer graphics and interactive technology conference Siggraph in Los Angeles.

But don't expect Snap to release the case and its accompanying mechanical bits as a product anytime soon, à la its video-recording glasses, Spectacles. Nayar said the project was "really sort of an exercise in curiosity," which is, in part, the goal of his lab at Snap Research.

That said, the researchers are giving anyone who's interested in making this reality (and who is somewhat technically savvy) a bit of help: on the project website, you can find links to 3-D models for making the button and knob widgets yourself.

Huntsville/Redstone
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 59°
Muscle Shoals
Clear
60° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 60°
Huntsville/Madison
Clear
61° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 61°
Decatur
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 59°
Fort Payne
Clear
60° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 44°
Feels Like: 60°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 522512

Reported Deaths: 10790
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson755371494
Mobile39129799
Madison34124500
Tuscaloosa25408444
Montgomery24059573
Shelby23225242
Baldwin20730302
Lee15638166
Calhoun14358311
Morgan14171273
Etowah13705348
Marshall12012220
Houston10416279
Elmore10024203
Limestone9862148
Cullman9509191
St. Clair9486236
Lauderdale9280233
DeKalb8762183
Talladega8127173
Walker7151276
Autauga6763106
Jackson6762110
Blount6532133
Colbert6236132
Coffee5436113
Dale4781111
Russell431239
Franklin421382
Chilton4130110
Covington4069115
Tallapoosa3922148
Escambia390374
Dallas3528150
Chambers3519122
Clarke347360
Marion3076100
Pike306676
Lawrence296395
Winston273272
Bibb256761
Marengo248561
Geneva246475
Pickens233259
Barbour227155
Hale218675
Butler213268
Fayette209660
Henry188444
Cherokee182744
Randolph177841
Monroe173140
Washington165538
Macon156548
Clay150255
Crenshaw149557
Cleburne147041
Lamar140034
Lowndes137353
Wilcox124727
Bullock122040
Conecuh109728
Perry107726
Sumter103332
Coosa99428
Greene91434
Choctaw58824
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 835842

Reported Deaths: 12081
CountyCasesDeaths
Shelby930851587
Davidson88030924
Knox49813624
Hamilton43402485
Rutherford42319420
Williamson27545216
Sumner23492341
Montgomery19623224
Wilson18472229
Out of TN1803295
Unassigned16760132
Sullivan16184287
Blount15180194
Bradley14599147
Washington14177242
Maury13211169
Sevier13166175
Putnam11168173
Madison10789241
Robertson9607130
Anderson8627171
Hamblen8498171
Greene7739152
Tipton7226104
Coffee6831121
Dickson6734109
Cumberland6568127
Carter6468156
Bedford6426129
Gibson6402144
McMinn636597
Roane6191102
Jefferson6073121
Loudon601669
Lawrence580686
Hawkins5781106
Monroe570995
Warren551381
Dyer5361104
Franklin508688
Fayette492178
Obion450296
Cheatham444454
Cocke443798
Rhea431275
Lincoln430663
Marshall411158
Campbell409662
Weakley402862
Giles395399
Henderson372975
Macon358077
Carroll357582
White354868
Hardin349766
Hardeman346464
Lauderdale314444
Henry312475
Marion309946
Claiborne306273
Scott305545
Overton296961
Wayne294334
Hickman280546
McNairy276854
DeKalb275653
Smith274838
Haywood268361
Grainger259149
Trousdale249022
Morgan246039
Fentress238546
Johnson231638
Bledsoe209711
Chester209451
Crockett201048
Polk200024
Unicoi194549
Cannon188931
Union186034
Grundy177933
Humphreys174221
Lake169526
Sequatchie166728
Benton163240
Decatur157338
Lewis155826
Meigs134823
Stewart130828
Jackson129935
Clay109031
Houston108533
Perry105728
Moore100017
Van Buren83421
Pickett75624
Hancock54912

Community Events