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Smartphone case augments touchscreens with physical buttons, scroll wheels

A customizable smartphone case prototype is bringing back physical buttons and scroll wheels at a time when manufacturers are looking to build devices with nothing more than touchscreens.

Vidgets are mechanical widgets that provide smartphone owners with a more tactile experience, compared to taps and swipes on a touchscreen. The project is a collaboration between Snap researchers Karl Bayer and Shree Nayar, and Columbia University students Chang Xiao and Changxi Zheng.

[SIGGRAPH 2019] Vidgets: Modular Mechanical Widgets for Mobile Devices

The smartphone case features several empty slots, in which modular components of physical buttons and scroll wheels may be inserted. It is also purely mechanical, as it does not connect to the smartphone through Bluetooth or a cable. Instead, the case relies on the sensitive gyroscope of devices to translate physical actions into input commands.

When people press on the few remaining physical buttons of their smartphone, it causes the device to move in their hand. The researchers utilized these movements for Vidgets, which create very distinct motions and vibrations whenever they are used. The accompanying software will then detect the movements and translate them into commands such as zooming in the camera and taking a picture.

Other applications that are shown in the video for Vidgets include operating the smartphone with gloved hands, playing video games with physical buttons instead of touchscreen controls, and even transforming the device into a virtual saxophone.

“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,” told Nayar, the director of Snap Research’s imaging-focused research lab in New York, to CNN Business.

The Vidgets-powered smartphone case has limitations, such as confusion in the software when two of the mechanical widgets are pressed at the same time, as well as in other situations when there are many kinds of vibrations such as in a car or subway train.

Snap is not planning to sell the innovative smartphone case soon though, as Nayar said that it was “really sort of an exercise in curiosity.” The researchers, however, shared links to 3D models of the physical buttons and scroll wheels used in the project, so anybody with the technical know-how may create their own Vidgets.

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