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The Best User Interfaces Of 2014

Virtual reality. Makeshift Holodecks. And sketches that float in 3-D. These are the wildest ideas we've seen in user interface in 2014.

  • <p>You might be holding a stylus like a paintbrush or a fountain pen, but<br />
a touch screen can't tell the difference. Ken<br />
Hinckley at Microsoft Research has been working to create a smarter<br />
stylus--one that can understand how you’re holding it and actually<br />
transmit that data to a tablet to better inform the interface,<br />
transforming the plastic stick to a pointer, a brush, a spreadsheet<br />
editor, or even, yes, a pen, based upon how you hold it. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3036931/microsoft-research-invents-a-stylus-that-can-read-your-mind" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>We hear old recordings, touch old objects, and see old photos. But<br />
design Academy Eindhoven graduate Mickaël Wiesengrün and Norwegian<br />
chemist Sisel Tolaas wanted to incorporate our sense of smell to<br />
transport visitors back in time. So they fitted a building, which had<br />
once been a Philips light bulb factory, with nose-high tubes, which<br />
used ultrasonic vibrations to vaporize the scents of sweat, steel, and<br />
and grease--the bygone smells of the closed factory--delivering a smell-based interface. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3037585/a-time-machine-for-smells" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>You can drag your finger across an app to tweak the hue of a Philips<br />
Hue LED light bulb, but what fun is that? Colorup is a squishy light bulb that you can touch to any<br />
surface, squeeze, and instantly slurp up the color. Think of it as a<br />
turkey baster for the color spectrum. <a href="http://" target="_blank"></a></p>
  • <p>You’re sitting in a dark room. It’s not so scary. It’s just a video<br />
game, playing out on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. But then,<br />
you hear a chain dragging across the floor--a real chain--ever so<br />
slowly. OccultUS, by ECAL designer Simon de Diesbach, surrounds a<br />
person in virtual reality with real objects making real noises, to<br />
create a hyper-immersive, fictional world that scares the hell out of<br />
them. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3036638/a-dark-ride-that-scares-you-out-of-the-oculus-rifts-uncanny-valley" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>Drawing 3-D shapes in mid-air sounds incredible, but air has no<br />
resistance, so in this sense, good old paper has a huge advantage for<br />
usable comfort. GravitySketch wants to be the solution. It’s basically<br />
a 3-D sketchbook. You draw on a flat plane as you normally would, then<br />
rotate the object like a cube to draw more. Augmented reality glasses<br />
make it appear like that drawing floats in front of you.<br />
GravitySketch is still in development--and who knows if it actually<br />
works--but as a concept, it’s still an enticing tease to a new era of drawing. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3030980/gravity-sketch-tablet-lets-you-draw-in-mid-air" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>Adobe’s VP of Experience Design, Michael Gough, has become<br />
surprisingly vocal in criticizing his company’s own products, pointing<br />
to the clunky keyboard shortcuts and deep menus of apps like<br />
Photoshop--20-year-old ideas--as getting in the way of one’s digital<br />
creative flow. Adobe Ink & Slide are a pen and ruler for iPads that<br />
mix drawing UI with cloud-based information to pull off some pretty<br />
novel stunts. Gough views the hardware as not the next mass-market<br />
hit for Adobe, but as a provocation to keep the entire industry<br />
questioning the interface of digital creation. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3032040/adobes-new-pen-and-ruler-tease-the-future-of-digital-creativity" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>Why does an iPad sketch have to live on an iPad? Hyve-3D uses a<br />
combination of projectors and motion tracking systems to transpose your<br />
touch-screen drawings to a 16-foot 3-D screen. And to shift where you<br />
draw in 3-D space, just move your iPad. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3034543/command-your-own-holodeck-with-an-ipad-mini" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>For the Sochi Olympic games (remember those?), Asif Khan built a<br />
pavilion facade from 10,000 moving rods, each tipped with an LED.<br />
Like a Pin Art toy, these glowing rods mapped the faces of visitors,<br />
turning the facade into an electronic Mount Rushmore. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3024757/like-a-digital-mount-rushmore-this-wall-can-morph-into-the-shape-of-your-face" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>It’s easy to be lost in a subway. So what if, when you walked through<br />
the subterranean concrete, your path lit up with transit times, and<br />
even arrows pointing you which way to go to reach your train? That’s<br />
the idea behind TransitScreen’s SmartWalk system. And last we heard,<br />
the company was in negotiations to install their first SmartWalk in<br />
Oakland. <a href="http://url=http://www.fastcodesign.com/3028960/slicker-city/smartwalk-turns-any-public-surface-into-a-subway-tracker" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>Carving out a bit of your own space on a crowded subway can be tough.<br />
The Personal Space Dress automatically senses others who are getting a<br />
bit too close for comfort, and then mechanically expands itself to<br />
create a hard barrier between you and others. It’s a fascinating art<br />
project in which someone’s private intentions shape their social world<br />
in a tangible way. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3030424/expanding-dress-foils-strangers-who-try-to-invade-your-personal-space" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • <p>It’s nice to sketch on paper, but it’s convenient to sketch digitally<br />
to save and edit work. Moleskine teamed with the LiveScribe pen team<br />
to create an experience that offers the best of both worlds--it allows<br />
you to draw in a book, but have those drawings saved automatically to<br />
the cloud. <a href="http://www.fastcodesign.com/3034901/wanted/this-new-moleskine-is-like-an-ipad-made-of-paper" target="_self"><strong>Link.</strong></a></p>
  • 01 /14 | RoomAlive--Microsoft’s Holodeck

    Using a small fleet of off-the-shelf projectors and depth-sensing
    Kinect cameras, RoomAlive can re-skin an entire room (from its walls to
    its furnishings) into a giant interactive display. It can even track
    each user’s position and apply real-time visual tricks to
    make them believe that 2-D projections aren’t just coating the room’s
    skin, but floating in midair. Link.

  • 02 /14 | A Stylus That Knows How You’re Holding It

    You might be holding a stylus like a paintbrush or a fountain pen, but
    a touch screen can't tell the difference. Ken
    Hinckley at Microsoft Research has been working to create a smarter
    stylus--one that can understand how you’re holding it and actually
    transmit that data to a tablet to better inform the interface,
    transforming the plastic stick to a pointer, a brush, a spreadsheet
    editor, or even, yes, a pen, based upon how you hold it. Link.

  • 03 /14 | A Time Machine For Smells

    We hear old recordings, touch old objects, and see old photos. But
    design Academy Eindhoven graduate Mickaël Wiesengrün and Norwegian
    chemist Sisel Tolaas wanted to incorporate our sense of smell to
    transport visitors back in time. So they fitted a building, which had
    once been a Philips light bulb factory, with nose-high tubes, which
    used ultrasonic vibrations to vaporize the scents of sweat, steel, and
    and grease--the bygone smells of the closed factory--delivering a smell-based interface. Link.

  • 04 /14 | Colorup Color Slurping Light Bulb

    You can drag your finger across an app to tweak the hue of a Philips
    Hue LED light bulb, but what fun is that? Colorup is a squishy light bulb that you can touch to any
    surface, squeeze, and instantly slurp up the color. Think of it as a
    turkey baster for the color spectrum.

  • 05 /14 | OccultUs--Real Sound in Virtual Reality

    You’re sitting in a dark room. It’s not so scary. It’s just a video
    game, playing out on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. But then,
    you hear a chain dragging across the floor--a real chain--ever so
    slowly. OccultUS, by ECAL designer Simon de Diesbach, surrounds a
    person in virtual reality with real objects making real noises, to
    create a hyper-immersive, fictional world that scares the hell out of
    them. Link.

  • 06 /14 | Thumbles Robotic Display

    Right now, the buttons on a touch screen are just pixels hiding behind
    glass. But Thumbles, by James Patten from Patten Studio, utilizes tiny,
    choreographed robots that you can pull, push, and rotate to control a
    program; a trippy idea to make interfaces more tactile. It's certainly eye-grabbing, but is it
    practical? Our judges for our Innovation by Design Awards weren’t so
    convinced. Link.

  • 07 /14 | GravitySketch

    Drawing 3-D shapes in mid-air sounds incredible, but air has no
    resistance, so in this sense, good old paper has a huge advantage for
    usable comfort. GravitySketch wants to be the solution. It’s basically
    a 3-D sketchbook. You draw on a flat plane as you normally would, then
    rotate the object like a cube to draw more. Augmented reality glasses
    make it appear like that drawing floats in front of you.
    GravitySketch is still in development--and who knows if it actually
    works--but as a concept, it’s still an enticing tease to a new era of drawing. Link.

  • 08 /14 | Adobe’s Ink & Slide

    Adobe’s VP of Experience Design, Michael Gough, has become
    surprisingly vocal in criticizing his company’s own products, pointing
    to the clunky keyboard shortcuts and deep menus of apps like
    Photoshop--20-year-old ideas--as getting in the way of one’s digital
    creative flow. Adobe Ink & Slide are a pen and ruler for iPads that
    mix drawing UI with cloud-based information to pull off some pretty
    novel stunts. Gough views the hardware as not the next mass-market
    hit for Adobe, but as a provocation to keep the entire industry
    questioning the interface of digital creation. Link.

  • 09 /14 | Hyve-3D

    Why does an iPad sketch have to live on an iPad? Hyve-3D uses a
    combination of projectors and motion tracking systems to transpose your
    touch-screen drawings to a 16-foot 3-D screen. And to shift where you
    draw in 3-D space, just move your iPad. Link.

  • 10 /14 | Sochi’s Mount Rushmore

    For the Sochi Olympic games (remember those?), Asif Khan built a
    pavilion facade from 10,000 moving rods, each tipped with an LED.
    Like a Pin Art toy, these glowing rods mapped the faces of visitors,
    turning the facade into an electronic Mount Rushmore. Link.

  • 11 /14 | SmartWalk

    It’s easy to be lost in a subway. So what if, when you walked through
    the subterranean concrete, your path lit up with transit times, and
    even arrows pointing you which way to go to reach your train? That’s
    the idea behind TransitScreen’s SmartWalk system. And last we heard,
    the company was in negotiations to install their first SmartWalk in
    Oakland. Link.

  • 12 /14 | Personal Space Dress

    Carving out a bit of your own space on a crowded subway can be tough.
    The Personal Space Dress automatically senses others who are getting a
    bit too close for comfort, and then mechanically expands itself to
    create a hard barrier between you and others. It’s a fascinating art
    project in which someone’s private intentions shape their social world
    in a tangible way. Link.

  • 13 /14 | The Moleskine iPad

    It’s nice to sketch on paper, but it’s convenient to sketch digitally
    to save and edit work. Moleskine teamed with the LiveScribe pen team
    to create an experience that offers the best of both worlds--it allows
    you to draw in a book, but have those drawings saved automatically to
    the cloud. Link.

  • 14 /14 | Birdly

    In 2015, we’re going to see Facebook, Samsung, Sony, and maybe even
    Microsoft enter the virtual reality space. Birdly--a simulator in
    which you don a VR headset while flapping your arms inside a
    mechanical bird skeleton--is a harbinger of a lot of weirdness to
    come.

In terms of smartphones and tablet interfaces, Google may have stolen 2014 with their landmark Material Design philosophy. But outside of that space, things are about to get weird. Really weird.

We sit on the precipice of a war for your face, in which companies like Facebook, Samsung, and Sony are making major investments in virtual reality technology. At the same time, we see companies like Microsoft experimenting on the complete opposite end of the spectrum—turning entire rooms into screens that a whole party can share.

In the slideshow above, you’ll see some of 2014's wildest ideas in interface design, ranging from whimsical light bulbs that can absorb any color they touch, to tiny robots that work together to become the physical buttons and levers of your software. Consider it a CliffsNotes review of the year in interaction design, and a primer for things to come in 2015.

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