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Apple, Google, And The Race To Create A Skeuomorphism You Don't Hate

Two powerful companies are re-inventing one of the oldest, most-hated ideas in UX. You're already hard-wired to love it.

Apple, Google, And The Race To Create A Skeuomorphism You Don't Hate

All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Apple

Apple’s new iPad Pros come with a subtle but important feature: True Tone, which uses two ambient light sensors to change the color temperature of your screen to match your environment. A warm incandescent light will turn your screen yellow at night, while the blue noon sun will make it cool. As a result, the virtual environment on your iPad will blend into any real-world environment, with only the bezel around the screen separating them.

It sounds like a wonderfully organic UI. Technically speaking, it also sounds like another instance of skeuomorphism, the same principle that led Apple to put virtual green felt poker tables inside GameCenter, or pseudo wood grain shelves in iBooks. Skeuomorphism consists of all the ornamental digital veneers that serve as navigational cues to luddites. They were useful once upon a time—the problem is that, today, there are almost no luddites left.

But True Tone is not the skeuomorphism you’ve learned to despise. This is a much more literal skeuomorphism, interested in duplicating the foundational mechanics of our real world behind the screen to make us happier, healthier, and generally more satisfied by the fake things we see.

Call It Skeuomorphism 2.0—Ugh, Actually, Don't

On stage in Cupertino yesterday, Phil Schiller waxed poetic about True Tone. "Let’s start with a piece of paper. A piece of paper reflects light, so when you use it in different environments, it reflects the color temperature of the light in that environment," he said. "Our optic nerves are designed to be comfortable with this experience. You go into the warm, incandescent light of your home, and the paper takes on a warm tone."

He was, in fact, celebrating the miraculous physics of the natural world, and the ways the human body has adapted to them. Google has been designing along the same lines for the past two years. In 2014, Google introduced its philosophy of Material Design, which treated every bit of UX on the screen not as a random assortment of pixels that could do anything a programmer could imagine, but as virtual pieces of paper that bend and move with real logic and restrictions based on their real-world properties. Google designers went so far as to fold real pieces of paper in front of lamps to understand the relationships of light, shadow, and texture.

By no stretch of the imagination, this is skeuomorphism! But it isn't the same skeuomorphism we've been trained to hate. Rather than creating an educational layer of ganache—like the "desktop" metaphor that once convinced skeptical office workers that their new fangled PCs could work just like their old trusty tabletop—Apple and Google are mimicking the world in a purer way, attempting to translate the principles of light and mass that we, as humans, intrinsically understand.

It’s skeuomorphism with a layer removed, an attempt at physics rather than artifice. It’s designers saying, "don’t worry about what the playing cards look like, let’s figure out what they feel like." And in this sense, Apple and Google are rebuilding the foundational mechanics of our real world behind the screen, rather than merely aping its signposts.

Google

Nature's Semi-Tangible Benefits

No doubt, True Tone and Material Design make for useful marketing pitches. But do they hold any true benefits? Probably. As humans, we’re predisposed to prefer real things. It’s a topic I was musing about with Randall Stone, director of Experience Innovation at Lippincott, and Bruce Vaughn, former co-executive leader of Walt Disney Imagineering, last week.

Their consensus? After 4.5 billion years on this planet, we’ve evolved with a natural affinity for the organic—from the geometric rules behind what makes a face look human, to the intangible qualities that make a puppy cute. Nature is full of perfectly visible, but oft-unexplored rulesets that humans demand to feel at peace—or even happy.

Maybe that sounds more like philosophy than design, but UI is not immune to these laws. We don’t switch off being human when we switch on our iOS devices. For example, it's innately satisfying to use the latest version of Android and watch UI elements stretch and unfold on one another in very tangible choreography. (Seriously, I bet you could watch these GIFs all day.)

In the case of Apple, the benefits of this organic UI philosophy could extend to your physical health. Not only will True Tone allow your glowing iPad to look like it fits in anywhere, its color matching prowess may actually help you sleep better at night because your physiology is hard-wired to wake with blue light and fall asleep to sunsetting yellows.

This true, nature-based skeuomorphism raises a question: Could we be healthier, or happier, if our virtual experiences more faithfully reproduced our real ones? Would using a computer all day be less taxing on our minds if Photoshop truly felt like working with real pigment and paper?

In 10 years, maybe we’ll have enough hard data to find out. But for now, the real takeaway may be in Schiller’s briefest summary of Apple’s latest invention: "Once you use a display with this True Tone technology, you never want to go back to old technology again." It just wouldn’t feel right.

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