Whenever someone follows brand communications agency Uniform's Twitter account, a toy train inside a cuckoo clock shoves a gumball out the door onto a circuitous track. When the gumball comes to rest, it’s available for studio members to consume. After that’s all done, their Twitter account automatically @replies the new follower with a link to a video of the thing in action.
The contraption is called Sweet Tweet and it’s an experimental "physical app" created by Uniform’s research platform, called ULAB.
"We wanted to create a physical app that connected our studio to our Twitter followers," says Pete Thomas, Uniform’s future director, "raising awareness and alerting us all to each new follower."
Sweet Tweet is a toy, but behind it is a pitch for a different way of doing interaction. It’s specifically a response to the spread of touch screens. ULAB envisions Internet-connected devices (the physical apps) that allow access to information or services without a mouse, keyboard, or touch screen. "We think that as mobile touch screens become ubiquitous, we’re increasingly going to see brands rely on physical apps to create more engaging real-world Internet-enabled experiences," says Thomas.
Though Uniform is most excited about how brands might make use of this kind of thing, the idea of physical apps ties into a larger discussion in the design world about the future of interaction.
When Apple introduced the iPhone, Steve Jobs made the case for a touch-screen interface. He put up a slide with four, then current, smartphones, cropped to show the buttons. "They all have these keyboards that are there whether you need them or not," he complained. "And they all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic." The advantage of a touch screen with a bitmap screen is clear. You can change your interface to suit each application and you can update the interface without needing to make a new device.
The case for the opposition is well articulated by Bret Victor in "A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design." He points out that the cost of these very visually flexible interfaces is that they severely limit our best means of interacting with the world. He offers a simple thought experiment. First, tie your shoelaces with your eyes closed. Second, try it when your eyes are open but your fingers are numb. "When working with our hands, touch does the driving, and vision helps out from the back seat," says Victor. "Claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It’s obviously a transitional technology."
As a sort of proof of concept, it’s worth asking what kind of interaction Sweet Tweet is enabling.
Uniform’s team gets the brunt of the experience. The cuckoo clock sits in their office. The gumball rewards are offered for an event that no one in the studio controls. Is this charming? I’ve never been in the studio, so I can’t say one way or the other, but heaven help them if the account ever gets really popular. Seven gumballs a day might be charming. Seven per minute would be a cacophony. In the early days of Amazon, they used to have a bell that went off whenever someone made an order on the site. They had to turn it off pretty quick. I keep thinking of Lucille Ball on the chocolate assembly line.
For the people who follow Uniform, their experience of the project is an automated @reply to a follow request. This is generally considered to be bad Twitter etiquette. While there is the nice payoff of the video, it’s not a video of the actual gumball being dropped. Instead, it’s the playful promotional video.
The weirdest part of this is that, spambot population being what it is, there’s a chance that the new follower isn’t even a person. A spambot follow that happens after hours would set off a chain of communication entirely devoid of human involvement.
Watching the video of the machine in action, I can’t help but think of operant conditioning experiments, with rats being trained using food pellet rewards. It’s B.F. Skinner meets Rube Goldberg as filmed by Wes Anderson. If you want to give the Uniform team some gum balls, you can click here to follow them on Twitter.