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16 Of The Year's Best Ideas In UI Design

From a concept that would allow you to drag files from your phone to computer, to a to-do list that isn’t a drag, here are the most promising designs that connect the physical and digital worlds.

  • <p>From MIT’s Media Lab, a series of levitating orbs can be rearranged--placed right in midair--to interface with any computer simulation you can imagine. It’s a 3-D user interface that you can touch. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669799/mit-creates-amazing-ui-from-levitating-orbs" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>It’s just a 2.5-inch chunk of rubber. But this Twine can connect any nook or cranny of your home with a simple, cloud-based monitoring system. Set Twine to a pipe you’re worried might freeze or a spot in your basement prone to floods, and its combinations of sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity will do the rest. And thanks to simple UI, programming all this complexity takes under a minute. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665571/twine-a-tiny-gizmo-that-holds-the-internets-future" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>iOS 86, by designer Anton Repponen, is a conceptual mashup of iOS and the Mac OS of yore. Each detail is subtly brilliant, from the black-and-white pixelated feel, to its retro icons for new apps like iTunes or YouTube. But even Repponen admits that he can’t put his finger on why it looks so good. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669156/even-better-than-iphone-5-an-iphone-with-the-1986-mac-os" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>It’s a pain to type on tablets, but Hooper Selection is an iPad hack that makes the device a legitimate word processor. Rather than shifting from the keyboard to multitouch gestures, to move the cursor you simply drag your fingers around the keyboard. To highlight text, just hold Shift while you drag. In practice, this simple hack is absurdly powerful. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669764/this-dead-simple-idea-could-fix-ipad-s-lousy-typing" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>If there was a Pinterest for email, it’d be called AOL Alto. The service integrates with many existing mail platforms (no AOL mail needed) to break your overwhelming inbox into topical stacks. Photos, Retailers, and Daily Deals become clickable topics rather than deep searches. It’s email, for the more visual web. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1671036/aol-might-just-have-invented-emails-next-ui-paradigm#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>By startup Qeexo, FingerSense turns the humble touch-screen tap into a smarter gesture, differentiating a knuckle, nail, or fingertip. So why hasn’t it taken over phones yet? It requires a special piece of hardware--an acoustic sensor--integrated into devices to work. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1671287/fingersense-could-finally-make-touchscreens-as-versatile-as-desktops" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>Clear is a beautiful to-do list for the iPhone, controlled by simple-but-powerful gesture interactions. But Realmac Software did the impossible: They translated their iPhone app to work just as intuitively (complete with trackpad-based interactions) in OS X. And audio cues take the app to the next level, allowing you to stay apprised of your list, even when you’re buried under 20 Chrome tabs. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1671331/an-ingenious-iphone-to-do-list-comes-to-the-desktop#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>When New York’s transit authority announced their cards would soon have ads, studio Mayday Mayday Mayday proposed a better solution: Make each card hold the code for a massive, interactive game, kind of like one of Wonka’s Golden Tickets with an augmented reality spin. The best part? Sponsors could still fork over big bucks to be included. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670374/turning-nycs-iconic-metrocard-into-a-massive-urban-game#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>Dropbox and iCloud are powerful, but neither has an intuitive tangible connection for file sharing. Ishac Bertran came up with a concept where you simply hold your phone next to your computer, then drag and drop files from one screen to another. And in a piece of brilliance, each screen has a half moon. So you’ll know when they’re connected when the moon is full. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669665/watch-this-ingenious-ui-idea-for-dragging-files-from-your-phone-to-computer#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>Our old green road signs can be surprisingly tough to navigate, but Manual designed a minimal, grey-backed replacement that’s as typographically sleek as the best websites. Better still? They propose integrated wireless transmitters, that could send you road information electronically, too. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670572/redesigning-highway-signs-to-talk-to-your-smartphone#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>Ford’s Keyfree has nothing to do with cars. Instead, this promotional app stores all of your passwords on your iPhone, then, placed near your computer, unlocks websites via Bluetooth connection. It’s not a 100% secure idea, but while I frequently forget passwords forever, I can always, eventually, find my phone. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670097/ford-schools-apple-with-clever-phone-login-appwait-what" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>With plenty of success under its belt, Airbnb boldly redesigned this year with a greater focus on social. Notably, Wish Lists had been around for a while, but not yet living up to their potential. Airbnb switched the interaction, from clicking a star to clicking a heart. Engagement grew by 30%. Why? Stars mean nothing. Hearts (or love?) are aspirational. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670890/how-airbnb-evolved-to-focus-on-social-rather-than-searches" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>The Little Printer is a charming, er, little printer by Berg London that turns your news, social feeds, and to-do lists into a custom newspaper that can print for each member of the family. It’s efficient, useful and, above all else, adorable, and it takes a much needed step in connecting the digital cloud to our physical lives. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670509/its-finally-out-a-little-printer-that-delivers-a-tiny-custom-newspaper#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>Have you ever tried to create a spreadsheet on a tablet? Don’t. That is, unless you’re using Grid. It’s an app that turns columned, tough-to-tap spreadsheets into a simple grid. Click on a box to add content (from numbers to photos to maps), then swipe left or right to manipulate it. Then your grid syncs to the cloud, to continue your work on another touch-screen device. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670545/a-spreadsheet-app-for-ipads-that-makes-number-crunching-a-treat#1" target="_self">Read more.</a>]</p>
  • <p>No one can challenge their courage. With Windows 8, Microsoft took a big gamble and introduced Metro, the industry’s first earnest attempt to merge desktop and tablet UIs through a minimal, content-is-king approach. It’s functionally beautiful, but now it needs to finish off Windows’ lingering desktop metaphors. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670705/microsoft-new-design-strategy#1" target="_self">Read more</a>]</p>
  • <p>Augmented reality is often seen as computer poison, a means of turning man into heartless machine. But Transcendenz, a student concept good enough to land Michaël Harboun a job at Ideo, imagines augmented reality as an app to make you a better, more empathetic person. [<a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669147/an-augmented-reality-game-aimed-at-making-you-more-saintly#1" target="_self">Read more</a>]</p>
  • 01 /16
    | MIT's Orbs

    From MIT’s Media Lab, a series of levitating orbs can be rearranged--placed right in midair--to interface with any computer simulation you can imagine. It’s a 3-D user interface that you can touch. [Read more.]

  • 02 /16
    | Twine

    It’s just a 2.5-inch chunk of rubber. But this Twine can connect any nook or cranny of your home with a simple, cloud-based monitoring system. Set Twine to a pipe you’re worried might freeze or a spot in your basement prone to floods, and its combinations of sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity will do the rest. And thanks to simple UI, programming all this complexity takes under a minute. [Read more.]

  • 03 /16
    | iOS 86

    iOS 86, by designer Anton Repponen, is a conceptual mashup of iOS and the Mac OS of yore. Each detail is subtly brilliant, from the black-and-white pixelated feel, to its retro icons for new apps like iTunes or YouTube. But even Repponen admits that he can’t put his finger on why it looks so good. [Read more.]

  • 04 /16
    | Hooper Selection

    It’s a pain to type on tablets, but Hooper Selection is an iPad hack that makes the device a legitimate word processor. Rather than shifting from the keyboard to multitouch gestures, to move the cursor you simply drag your fingers around the keyboard. To highlight text, just hold Shift while you drag. In practice, this simple hack is absurdly powerful. [Read more.]

  • 05 /16
    | AOL Alto

    If there was a Pinterest for email, it’d be called AOL Alto. The service integrates with many existing mail platforms (no AOL mail needed) to break your overwhelming inbox into topical stacks. Photos, Retailers, and Daily Deals become clickable topics rather than deep searches. It’s email, for the more visual web. [Read more.]

  • 06 /16
    | FingerSense

    By startup Qeexo, FingerSense turns the humble touch-screen tap into a smarter gesture, differentiating a knuckle, nail, or fingertip. So why hasn’t it taken over phones yet? It requires a special piece of hardware--an acoustic sensor--integrated into devices to work. [Read more.]

  • 07 /16
    | Clear

    Clear is a beautiful to-do list for the iPhone, controlled by simple-but-powerful gesture interactions. But Realmac Software did the impossible: They translated their iPhone app to work just as intuitively (complete with trackpad-based interactions) in OS X. And audio cues take the app to the next level, allowing you to stay apprised of your list, even when you’re buried under 20 Chrome tabs. [Read more.]

  • 08 /16
    | Interactive MTA Cards

    When New York’s transit authority announced their cards would soon have ads, studio Mayday Mayday Mayday proposed a better solution: Make each card hold the code for a massive, interactive game, kind of like one of Wonka’s Golden Tickets with an augmented reality spin. The best part? Sponsors could still fork over big bucks to be included. [Read more.]

  • 09 /16
    | Spatially Aware Devices

    Dropbox and iCloud are powerful, but neither has an intuitive tangible connection for file sharing. Ishac Bertran came up with a concept where you simply hold your phone next to your computer, then drag and drop files from one screen to another. And in a piece of brilliance, each screen has a half moon. So you’ll know when they’re connected when the moon is full. [Read more.]

  • 10 /16
    | Manual’s Road Signs

    Our old green road signs can be surprisingly tough to navigate, but Manual designed a minimal, grey-backed replacement that’s as typographically sleek as the best websites. Better still? They propose integrated wireless transmitters, that could send you road information electronically, too. [Read more.]

  • 11 /16
    | Ford Keyfree

    Ford’s Keyfree has nothing to do with cars. Instead, this promotional app stores all of your passwords on your iPhone, then, placed near your computer, unlocks websites via Bluetooth connection. It’s not a 100% secure idea, but while I frequently forget passwords forever, I can always, eventually, find my phone. [Read more.]

  • 12 /16
    | Airbnb

    With plenty of success under its belt, Airbnb boldly redesigned this year with a greater focus on social. Notably, Wish Lists had been around for a while, but not yet living up to their potential. Airbnb switched the interaction, from clicking a star to clicking a heart. Engagement grew by 30%. Why? Stars mean nothing. Hearts (or love?) are aspirational. [Read more.]

  • 13 /16
    | Little Printer

    The Little Printer is a charming, er, little printer by Berg London that turns your news, social feeds, and to-do lists into a custom newspaper that can print for each member of the family. It’s efficient, useful and, above all else, adorable, and it takes a much needed step in connecting the digital cloud to our physical lives. [Read more.]

  • 14 /16
    | Grid

    Have you ever tried to create a spreadsheet on a tablet? Don’t. That is, unless you’re using Grid. It’s an app that turns columned, tough-to-tap spreadsheets into a simple grid. Click on a box to add content (from numbers to photos to maps), then swipe left or right to manipulate it. Then your grid syncs to the cloud, to continue your work on another touch-screen device. [Read more.]

  • 15 /16
    | Windows 8

    No one can challenge their courage. With Windows 8, Microsoft took a big gamble and introduced Metro, the industry’s first earnest attempt to merge desktop and tablet UIs through a minimal, content-is-king approach. It’s functionally beautiful, but now it needs to finish off Windows’ lingering desktop metaphors. [Read more]

  • 16 /16
    | Transcendenz

    Augmented reality is often seen as computer poison, a means of turning man into heartless machine. But Transcendenz, a student concept good enough to land Michaël Harboun a job at Ideo, imagines augmented reality as an app to make you a better, more empathetic person. [Read more]

Half the world hasn’t even realized it yet, but we’re facing one of the greatest design challenges in humanity’s history: How do we connect this cloud-based digital world we’ve so quickly inhabited with the analog world we’ve inhabited for so long? It’s a problem greater than any one microchip, wireless standard, or ingenious gadget: It’s a problem of melding meat and bits. It’s a problem of interface.

Already, we’re seeing the best and brightest repositioning themselves for this murkier hybrid world. With Windows 8, Microsoft adopted a universal interface with the realization that the PC was dead. Yet a mere Kickstarter project called Twine may be even more important in the grand scheme, as it leverages smart sensors and a clever web UI to keep track of dumb, analog objects in the big data cloud.

Indeed, 2012 was a very big year for the future of UI. Here are our favorite projects to catch up on before 2013 takes over and this whole list is, inevitably, antiquated.